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Is there a cure for slow play?

27 FEB 2019

Given a few highly visible episodes of slow play on the PGA Tour recently, everybody is fretting about the problem and what to do about it.

By Peter Mumford

Oh no! Not another article about slow play.

Don’t we get one of those at least annually, with reminders about how we should play ready golf, keep up with the group in front and never dawdle on the course? Is this a refresher?

Well, I’m pleased to say that it’s not.

Slow play has been in the news most recently due to the behaviour of the final group at Riviera a few weeks back during the Genesis Open, notably won by human rain delay J.B. Holmes, one of the worst transgressors of pace of play guidelines to ever tee it up on the PGA Tour.

JB, (the B stands for turtle, don’t ask) first came to the attention of golf fans when he took a month and a half to hit his second shot to the final hole at the Farmers Insurance Open over a year ago. After pondering club selection, wind direction, wind velocity, conferring with his caddie, throwing up some more grass, changing clubs, another confab with said caddie and a final club selection, JB laid up short of the pond. In total, it took him 4 minutes and 18 seconds to decide to lay up.

People write entire grocery lists faster than that; countries go to war in less time.

At Riviera, Holmes was again fingered as the culprit when the final group finished in 5 hours and 39 minutes, at least two holes behind the group in front. I watched that tournament, and except for comments from Jim Nance and Nick Faldo, I had no idea they were moving at such a snail’s pace. I’m not even sure that the broadcast team would have made mention of it, except the PGA Tour had them on the clock at some point earlier in the round.  

Such is the magic of television that it can make the abnormal seem quite normal. Not in the sense of turning alien monsters into ordinary people; more like time shifting events.

Let’s look at it this way. The PGA Tour broadcast is generally on for 3-4 hours on Saturday and Sunday afternoon. During that time, we see the leaders play almost an entire 18 and catch snippets of other groups as they finish. Because TV jumps from one group to another, you don’t really get any perspective on the actual pace of play unless you see a big hold-up, or someone is put on the clock. Otherwise, you’re constantly watching golf shots. (Or sometimes watching Tiger eating a sandwich, but that’s another story.)

There’s virtually no non-golf time or downtime in the telecast when they show players walking or waiting on a tee. By late Sunday afternoon, you start to see a bit more attention paid to players in contention assessing a shot or lining up a putt. And that downtime is filled with brilliant and witty repartee from the colour commentators and analysts. OK, maybe not always brilliant or witty but the filler certainly distracts you from the fact that a golf shot isn’t being played, and generally speaking, nobody is really too aware of the time involved.

When six o’clock rolls around and there are still a couple of holes to play, the broadcast kicks over to Golf Channel and people start asking why it takes over five hours for a twosome or threesome to play 18 holes. Until that point however, nobody is particularly aware of the pace of play.

It’s not like the PGA Tour guys stand around chatting before every shot or are distracted by the beverage cart. They generally don’t spend much time looking for lost balls either. Their pace of play is dictated by one thing only and that’s how fast they want to play. And, unfortunately, it’s not very fast.

Many pundits point to the inordinate amount of time players spend over each shot. They consult yardage books or green reading books and their caddies on every shot. They assess the situation. Then they start their pre-scripted pre-shot routine. The Tour allows a certain amount of time for each shot, but the slowpokes have a dozen ways to prolong that allowed time.

Remember Jordan Spieth at the Open Championship a few years back when he took twenty minutes to find his ball, decide where to drop, decide what line to take and then finally hit his shot. He did it all under the watchful eye of a Rules official. No penalty. Not even a warning. Those of us watching at home were highly entertained by Spieth’s progress and the comments of the analysts, and barely aware that it was taking forever. Meanwhile playing partner Matt Kuchar was probably wondering if he should order a pizza.

Are players influenced by the amount of prize money at stake? That’s likely true of the leaders but the guys who are going to finish at the back of the pack could care less. A cheque for $5,000 barely covers caddie fees. You don’t see them pondering every shot like it’s for the U.S. Open. However, put them in contention the following week and they suddenly turn into Joe Tortoise.

This is learned behaviour. Throughout junior golf, college golf and with their coaches, they’re taught to analyze everything and follow a repeatable routine. We know they can play fast when there’s not a lot of money on the line. We also know that the PGA Tour is not going to do anything other than a token gesture to make them play faster when they are in contention.

So, don’t expect penalty strokes to be assessed any time soon. There has been talk of docking them FedEx Cup points instead of monetary fines, which might mean they miss out on an invitational or entry to a Major. That would have more impact.

Also, don’t expect any help from the Tour’s TV partners. They know who pays the bills and they’re not going out on any limbs to embarrass the players. Similarly, the sponsors.

Public shaming may be the last resort. There has been talk of fans chanting, “Hit the Ball, Hit the Ball” until they finally pull the trigger. Seems kind of tawdry for a sport where etiquette and decorum are two of its main pillars.

Can we expect pace of play to get any better? Bryson DeChambeau, the Mad Scientist and former physics major, is one of the worst when it comes to maximizing his analytical time and he has no regrets. With five wins behind him at age 25, he believes his routine works for him and he’s not about to change. Unfortunately, lots of kids see his success and want to copy it too.

Pace of play is a decision. We know the pros can play fast when they want to; sometimes they choose not to when there’s a lot of money on the line. Until the Tour decides their financial interests are being hurt by the slow pace, things are not going to change.

In the meantime, just sit back and enjoy watching the best players on the planet, interspersed with witty repartee.

And don’t copy their routines!

Peter Mumford is the Editor of Fairways Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @FairwaysMag.