The Wrong Way on Slow Play

Slow play was the issue de jour this past year, with the golf world united in its determination to tackle the problem. The Golf Channel anointed June “pace of play month”, the USGA spent who knows how much on its silly ode to Rodney Dangerfield, the PGA of America began touting four-hole rounds, and just about every golf-related journalist, teacher, blogger, equipment manufacturer, and fan chimed in with serious invective against the practice.

What’s surprising, however, is the sense that a) this is a new issue for the game and b) slow play’s source is somewhat mysterious with the solution complex and elusive.

First off, the view that this is a 21st century problem attributed to steroidal technology (necessitating more difficult golf courses), and the penchant for 20+  handicappers to mimic the obsessive-compulsive behavior of the current crop of tour pro is misguided. This isn’t to minimize the impact of the Ben Crane crowd on the rest of us, or the disaster that has been 80s/90s architecture, but slow play certainly predates island greens and the practice of marking two footers. Bethpage State Park has been known as the “home of the six hour round” for as long as I can remember, and these courses were built in the 1930s and barely measure past 6,000 yards (forget the Black; it takes, and has always taken, just as long to complete a round on any of the others.)

Is it then the byzantine nature of the rule book and its affinity for doling out cruel and unusual punishment? Not really; while stroke and distance for out of bounds might be ridiculous, and even the best players in the world apparently haven’t a clue where to drop after hitting into a hazard, you’d be hard pressed to find many amateurs trudging back to the tee after losing a ball five yards off the fairway, let alone many that even know what the rules call for in such a situation.

The source of the problem is much more basic and relatively simple. Former USGA honcho David Fay, not surprisingly, was the one voice who addressed it head on in the past year. Simply stated, the vast majority of amateur golfers, even the decent ones, stink, and it has forever been so. Churchill more than half a century ago probably expressed it best. Unfortunately, Fay’s solution (to hire kids to run around in the woods spotting errant shots) isn’t particularly practical, and in any event doesn’t go far enough.

But golf could survive golfers not being any good, assuming they’re playing under the right format. The real problem is that everyone these days is obsessed with “posting a score.” Yes, stroke play is the root of all evil here.

Double-digit handicappers should not be counting every stroke. Period.

Compounding things is this ridiculous ethos that has taken hold – I guess we should blame the mythologists from the Bobby Jones era – that one is somewhat less of a human being if he/she doesn’t treat golf as some sort of Calvinist undertaking. Thinking of hiring someone? ‘Take ‘em out to the course to take their measure’ is a current line of thinking. As if wasting 10 minutes of everyone’s time while digging out of a buried lie in a pot bunker is some kind of virtue. What utter rubbish.

Have you ever heard anything as absurd as the following, particularly coming from a college football coach, who’s profession, by definition, requires a complete disregard of the rules? (I’ll let you guess the identity of the coaches below):

“He shot a 108. I had to count all the balls he hit into the pond on No. 10. He said, ‘Steve, I had an 11, didn’t I?’ I said, ‘Coach, I’m afraid it was a 13.’ We went back, recounted, and it was 13.”

My god, playing behind these two could have been a scene out of Huis Clos.

I have a friend, a serious golfer, one good enough to pass the playing ability test and to come close to qualifying for the Mid-Am. He plays regular games against another low handicapper, wherein they team up with a couple of less skilled players. It has never, and I’m not exaggerating here, crossed their minds that they should be playing anything other than stroke play. They count each score, add them together, with lower aggregate winning. (As if they’re playing in the world cup or something.)

Can you imagine what these matches are like? Five minute ball searches every other hole…  discussions like this on the third, “better mark that 2 footer Joe; I’ll give you a read from the other side. Might be decisive.”

Somebody, somehow, needs to reintroduce match play to the amateur golfer, and fast (and I’m talking about the public golfer here; I really couldn’t care less how long it takes John Boehner to get around Burning Tree.)

Just think; if match play was the norm, Lou Holtz’s (well, just guess the other one) 13? After the second in the water, he’d have conceded and they’d have been on to the next hole. Joe’s two footer? Well, it would have been for a net seven, and with his partner already in for a par, he’d have picked up five minutes prior.

Now, I know the Scots would take it a step further and advocate alternate shot (one ball per pair). But that’s probably a step too far, with the typical public golfer paying close to $100 for a round on weekends these days. If we can just get the amateur to avoid thinking that they’re out there to compare their overall score to Phil Mickelson’s, we’d be a long way to fixing the pace of play problem.

Come to think of it, I might consider taking a prospective hire out on the golf course after all. If he or she were to kneel down to mark a tap-in in order to avoid stepping in the line of my six foot putt for double, I’d probably have picked up a pretty good clue that deadlines, and priorities, might be a problem…

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9 thoughts on “The Wrong Way on Slow Play”

  1. spot on. from a perspective of an economist, match play is a win-win. increased efficiency and increased utility to the players, play moves faster and players are happier since they can easily forget bad holes and move on.

    but the problem is, all weekend warriors regardless of the sport want to emulate the practices of the masters of the sport, even if it is counter to their own purposes. unless you can influence the masters to change behaviors that can trickle down, i don’t see how you win this one. most sports have this problem, but golf has the interesting external affect that slows others down that most other sports escape.

    the options i see:
    1. more match play in the pros – don’t see this happening. stroke play is much more compelling on tv.
    2. worst you can score on a hole is a double bogey – implement this in major golf and you would start to see pros picking up their balls. i like this option
    3. improve ball tracking technology. get your iphone app that tells you where the ball is. except everyone would be running around the woods with their iphones.
    4. faster golf carts – again marginal improvement and potential lawsuits.

    good luck with this one. hire a couple economists and start running some experiments at local clubs. i’m sure their efficiency out there to be gained.

  2. that’s just what this blog needs to generate readers; a debate on fed policy!

    but g is right in channeling the current zeitgeist; the ‘stat types’ of course are of the opinion that they have the answer to the slow play issue (along with everything else, I guess.) They are fixated on expanding the amount of time (to at least 10 minutes) between groups going off the first tee..

  3. well played. i must admit, i focused on the first shot at the economists and missed the fed kill shot.

    i probably should have stayed with the stats guys – http://www.sloansportsconference.com/ – everybody can get behind moneyball – by the way where are the golf stats guys. similar to the go-for-it on 4th down crowd in nfl, there must be some fun probabilities in golf to upend.

  4. Stats, shmats! If you really want to increase the speed of play you need only to look at other fast paced sports. Arena Football, Indoor Soccer and Raquetball. What do they all have in common?…Walls. And by walls I mean actual walls (not nets) that golfers could use to their advantage. Horrible slice or wicked hook? No problem. The walls would keep the ball in play and eliminate the pointless searching in the thick rough for a ball that we all know is forever lost. No more needing to yell “fore” when golfers try to kill it on a Par 5. I think this idea has promise.

    If you think this idea is too ahead of it’s time then you probably won’t agree with Phase 2: Replace all water hazards with trampolines.

  5. I agree that looking for lost balls is the biggest waste of time. Drop a new ball and hit it!

    I’m all in favor of match play, as long as handicapping is in effect. Definitely would keep the motivation going.

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