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The Battle Against Slow Play

Anyone who watched the Masters last month know that Trevor Immelman — and I’m being diplomatic here — is a deliberate player. Okay, he’s slow. And I’ve admitted to enjoying the Masters on my PVR, where two clicks of the fast forward button blasted through a minute of Immelman’s pre-shot routine and took me to the actual contact with the ball. If it wasn’t for my PVR, I might have been forced to commit hari kari through boredom. In the end, despite playing in twosomes, Immelman and his playing partner, the quick Brandt Snedeker, got around the course in more than five hours. In fact a snail toured the course four minutes faster.

Anyway, slow play and what can be done to combat it was a big part of the R&A’s pre Open Championship press conference. Now Peter Dawson, head of the R&A, says five hour rounds aren’t part of the British Open, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t concerned:

Q. We had a situation at The Masters this year where Trevor Immelman and Brandt Snedeker took five hours to play in a two-ball in the final round. I believe that Adam Scott’s group on Sunday was three hours for nine holes. Obviously slow play is the cancer on the game. How do we get players to move quicker around the golf course?
PETER DAWSON: I think we will certainly be aiming to do better than five hours and ten minutes. I think in recent times, particularly on the weekend, we’ve actually done quite well at the Open. Basic play has not really been an issue, and I’m quite confident that we can do an awful lot better than that.

Q. It’s not an issue at the Open perhaps but it is an issue generally. It is getting abysmal. I’m wondering with the R & A as a governing body, how do we get them to get a move-on?
PETER DAWSON: We are concerned about this. We did see some very slow play at The Masters. That’s not a criticism of the Augusta event, it just happened to happen. I wasn’t aware of the Adam Scott group statistic. But we do have a meeting coming up in two or three weeks of the World Golf Foundation, where everyone around the table who runs professional golf will be there, and we have put the subject on the agenda, and we hope we will be able to get some meeting of the minds that it is a problem and start to work towards some improvement.
But as you say, it certainly needs something doing about it, not just for the running of these events but for the effect it has on grass-roots play. We do see people not unnaturally copying the stars, and I think it has had an effect on pace of play generally. We all know, don’t we, that pace of play is one of the issues cited for participation, and the time that golf takes is an issue that’s been cited for keeping participation levels down. It’s clearly an issue right across the game, top to bottom, up and down the game, and I think it behooves all the governing bodies in golf to address it.
Just to put the facts on the Open, they were 3 hours, 45 minutes at Hoylake and 3 hours, 50 minutes at Carnoustie on the final day in two-balls. I think we should be mindful, there are quite long walks at this course between greens and tees, which obviously have to be taken into consideration, but we’ve certainly never gone beyond four hours on the last day to my knowledge. Having walking rules officials does help.

In a normal press conference of ink-slingers that would have been it. They would have moved on to questions about alterations to Birkdale and whether Elin would appear in the tabloids when the Woods come to visit. But no — my peers pushed forward!

Q. I just want to return to the slow play issue. I just wonder, what is it that the pros do that the amateurs pick up on the most? You talked about the effects at the grass-roots level.
PETER DAWSON: Well, if I can just reverse that for a minute, there is an issue in amateur golf where the top amateurs that are moving through to the pro game are quite slow. Anecdotally one hears that this is because college coaches encourage pretty elaborate pre-shot routine, as do national coaches in Europe. Quite often the amateurs that are moving across to the pro game are having to speed up to play professional golf. So the amateur game has a piece of the blame here, I think, at elite amateur level.
I think what we see is a combination from grass-roots golfers of perhaps not being pace of play aware. We all know about the people who put the trolley on the wrong side of the green and go over and back and mark their scorecard before the leave the green and so on. But also I think there’s an element of copying this pre-shot routine and pacing around the greens to line up putts and so on that spreads downwards into the game. And it’s certainly true that what used to be a morning occupation now feeds into lunchtime quite a bit. So it has slowed up.

Q. In this meeting of minds that will take place in a few weeks, are we guaranteed that something will come out of this? There was a meeting of minds a few years ago at St. Andrews on slow play, and I don’t think anything concrete came out of it.
PETER DAWSON: I can’t guarantee anything. The subject is on the agenda. We’ll see what happens.

My expectation — nothing will happen. But slow play is a plague on golf. It keeps people from the game and makes the game less enjoyable to watch and participate in. On Tuesday I played — admittedly in a cart — 21 holes at Eagles Nest in just over three hours. I’ve walked courses like Scotland’s Montrose in less than three hours.

There’s no excuse for golf — at any level — to take more than four hours and 15 minutes.

It is time professional golf made this an issue — and Dawson compared the matter on the level of importance with testing for performance-enhancing drugs.

He’s right. Now let’s see if anyone steps up to do anything about it.

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Robert Thompson

A bestselling author and award-winning columnist, Robert Thompson has been writing about business and sports, and particularly golf, for almost two decades. His reporting and commentary on golf has appeared in Golf Magazine, the Globe and Mail, T&L Golf and many other media outlets. Currently Robert is a columnist with Global Golf Post, golf analyst for Global News and Shaw Communications, and Senior Writer to ScoreGolf. The Going for the Green blog was launched in 2004.

7 CommentsLeave a comment

  • for the long game, I’ve switched my game to no practice swings or a quick swing away from the ball to make sure nothing’s tightened up. I still pre visualize the shot while I’m behind the ball walking up to address. some of my playing partners are up to three pre-swings and god forbid 4-5 practice swings

    Chipping, I’ll take one or two practice swings as it’s more feel.

    I do find I’m more deliberate with putting now, but with so many shots lost, it’s more important than the long shots into the green.

  • Three points on slow play:

    1. Why do people care about pace of play among pros? IMHO, playing slowly is not going to make me play as well as a pro and will just result in less time at the 19th hole or at home with family (both bad). Casual amateurs should just play faster. Do you really thing the 5th (or 1st for that matter) practice swing is going to improve your stroke at this point?

    2. Slow play seems like a “cultural” problem. When a club is committed to a culture of quicker play it seems to speed things up dramatically. I was a member of a club where the importance of playing fast was regularly emphasized and became ingrained in the cultural fabric of the club. For instance, all groups were timed off the 1st tee on weekend mornings and those that were not back to the 10th tee in 2 hrs were given an official warning. 2 warnings and the group was invited to tee off (only) after noon on weekends for 2 months. Once members knew that they were expected to complete a round in 4 hours they figured out how to do it on a very consistent basis (very few warnings needed to be issued). Half the problem seems to be players don’t have any idea that they should be able to complete a round in 3 1/2 or 4 hours.

    3. Why hasn’t a public course embraced quicker play as a comparative advantage? I think this would involve advertising that the course was committed to a pace of play of (say) 4:15 and advertising accordingly. Golfers could be notified at the time of booking a tee time that they should come only if they can finish in 4 hours and will be expected to leave the course after (say) 4:15. This could be reinforced at the time of check in so there is no confusion about priorities. I think that there are enough players around that are exasperated with 5 1/2 hour rounds that they would embrace the idea immediately. From the club’s perspective they would have a differentiating strategy, they might be able to fit more people on the course if everyone was moving along a little more quickly, everyone would enjoy their round more and players might stick around longer in the clubhouse if they were finished their round more quickly. Just a thought.

  • Slow play has been talked about for years. A lot of talk…no action. Too many forces condone slow play…everything from pros who model the behaviour for the weekend hacker to ingrained habits that are hard to break (the 3 swinger before lining up for the strike) to the inherent self centred nature of many players (we all know them – complainers of slow play who are the worst offenders themselves!) to the reluctant clubs and public courses who do not want to offend their membership or paying customers who choose to play slowly.

    In the club environment where members are accountable to one another and the club promotes a fast play culture (Toronto Golf Club anyone?), the issue tends to be mute. In public courses without regulars, slow play is prevalent.

    Not sure what the solution is other than club and public courses who choose to enforce fast play through various means.

    If enforcement of fast play is really a money maker (as noted by a previous post), I suspect that more courses would have adopted this approach. The fact that they have not leads me to think that this assumption may be inaccurate. Or alternatively, courses are not willing to deal with the resultant bad press from the 4 ball that is forced to skip a hole or be thrown off the course.

  • By reading Mr. Dawson’s answers it is obvious he is either not doing his job, or does not give a damn.
    Amateur golfers learn both good and bad habits by watching the pros; when the pro plumb bobs a one foot putt, the next week you will see joe six pack doing the same thing. The same thing goes for “shot visualisation” and the practice swings mimicing the anticipated shot–think Immellman.
    If I owned a public golf course, I would set a price schedule based on the amount of time it took the group to play 18 holes.
    If my green fee was $60 for an anticipated or mandated 4 hour round, and the group finished 24 minutes early or in just over 3.5 hours, I would refund them the 10% of their fee they paid for finishing 10% faster. Just a though, but something has to be done and it is obvious that the R&A nor the USGA and for that matter the RCGA do not have the balls to penalize the pros.

  • Like everyone else, I realize there is no one answer to why play has become so slow or one answer on how to fix it.
    I have been playing golf for 32 years, and slow play is definately more prevalent now than in the past. From my viewpoint, I see two factors that seem to come into play, while not dismissing the many more.
    Those who pay their money and with that feel they are within their rights to do as they wish on the course. They may be two holes behind the group in front, but do nothing to catch up. The cart girl comes by, but they still stop and purchase, falling another half a hole behind. An old golf ball is lost, but 5-10 minutes are spent looking for it. Oh, I see three balls in that pond, lets spend 5 minutes looking for balls. Etc.
    The increase in slow play by the pros, the those who feel the need to ‘copy’ the routines of the pros. With respect of the pros, I realize they are playing for huge sums of money, but how many times do you now see a pro mark a 1-2 foot putt? Pisses me off every time I see it.
    Can it be fixed? I am not sure!

  • It may help if on scorecards we had a spot for recording the time required to play and ONLY rounds played in under 4:15 or 4:30 were allowed to be posted for handicaps.
    The PGA Tour is essentially run by the players, so they are very unmotivated to do anything. Now if the USGA said all rounds in US Amatuer events had to be completed in 4:30 or 4:15 or scores do not count, things would change.
    Make it part of the rules, quit fooling around.

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