To Fight Slow Play a New System is Needed

Kevin Na’s trigger-pulling troubles at the Players Championship two weeks ago put the spotlight on the slow-play problem on the PGA Tour, leading many to wonder why the Tour didn’t enforce stroke penalties. Morgan Pressel’s slow-play penalty at the LPGA’s Sybase Match Play Championship last week showed the problem with enforcing penalties.

The PGA and LPGA Tours have similar procedures for dealing with slow play in that players are subject to being timed when their group has fallen out of position relative to the group in front. The big difference is that the LPGA doesn’t give a warning before a penalty, while the PGA Tour gives a player a warning on the first bad time and a penalty on the second (and it never gets that far).

The problem with penalties under this system is that while they are rarely applied, they are also haphazardly applied. They are not really designed to hit habitually slow players with penalties, rather they appear to catch players almost at random. It doesn’t matter which player(s) have caused the problem; all players in the group are subject to penalties once a group is out of position. There might be a variety of reasons for a player to take a long time to hit a particular shot—distractions, a wind change, player is in between clubs, has a tricky pitch shot. And these are liable to affect any player, not just a slow one. An official may give a player some leeway (they are supposed to in the case of distractions), but another official might not, which adds an element of arbitrariness.

In the Sybase incident, Pressel’s opponent Azahara Munoz herself admitted that she was at fault for the twosome being put on the clock. But it was Pressel who played first from the tee on the par-three 12th in a tricky wind, putting her in jeopardy of a penalty. When she didn’t rush her pitch shot or her par putt, she ended up considerably over her allowed time of 30 seconds per shot.

The LPGA’s system adds up time for all the shots on a hole to determine if there is a penalty. This gives the player some leeway to make up time on other shots rather than handing out a penalty for one slow shot where there may have been a reason. But it leaves a player at a disadvantage if they don’t end up with a short putt that they can just tap in. They are also at a disadvantage if they are playing first on any part of the hole (the PGA Tour allows extra time for this.) And there’s less chance to make up ground on a par three.

The 30 seconds allowed per shot is faster than the average pace on Tour. It’s true that players out of position should be trying to get back into position. As Munoz said, “It’s true that I’m a slow player. But you know, when the clock is on, the clock is on.” But it’s also a standard that is liable to catch players who aren’t necessarily that slow and may not have caused the problem in the first place.

The Pressel situation raised eyebrows because it happened in the semifinals, with just two matches on the course. And it was particularly untimely for Pressel because the penalty caused her to lose a hole which she actually would have won, essentially costing her two holes in the match standing as she went from 3 up to 1 up.

It’s debatable whether handing out penalties with such random elements is better than not handing out penalties at all, as on the PGA Tour. No Tour official wants to be put in a position where he would call a slow-play penalty that would cost a player a victory or hundreds of thousands of dollars. The PGA Tour doesn’t want that to happen, either, and has devised a system that essentially prevents that from happening.

First, players don’t get timed until they are out of position. Second, they don’t get a stroke penalty unless they get a second bad time while they are still out of position. Third, officials have a lot of discretion as to when to start timing on a given shot. That combination makes it very unlikely a player will get a stroke penalty (it hasn’t happened since 1995).

Some argue that the slow-play problem persists on the PGA Tour because it doesn’t impose penalties. (It wasn’t Commissioner Tim Finchem’s finest hour when he said maybe the Tour should “experiment” with stroke penalties, when stroke penalties are written into the existing policy.) But a few somewhat arbitrary penalties under a no-warning system wouldn’t really make much of a dent in the pace-of-play problem. The truth is the current system isn’t designed to combat a Tour where slow play is an endemic problem.

Timing players only when a group is out of position doesn’t do anything to help when the general pace of play is slow to begin with. The perception seems to be that it’s a few snails who are responsible for slowing things down. But the fact is that rounds take so long because most players are pretty slow, especially once they get to the greens.

Sometime around 15 to 20 years ago, I timed players on the Tour as part of an article in Golf Magazine on slow play. What I found is that Tour players were actually pretty quick to hit drives—probably faster that your typical weekend golfer. They slowed down on approach shots, and there was a greater variability between fast and slow players. But the key to the overall pace was that everyone took their time on the greens. Even fast players, while they didn’t stand over the ball like a statue or have an elaborate routine, spent considerable time eyeballing their putts before getting ready to strike them. Hardly anybody on Tour averaged less than 45 seconds after it became their turn to putt.

The pace may have gotten even slower on the greens since then and if the long consultations we often see between players and caddies are an indication, it’s definitely gotten slower on full shots. If the general pace is slow, and there are no repercussions if your group doesn’t fall behind, what’s the incentive to speed up?

If the PGA or LPGA Tours want to get serious about reducing round times, they need a new system. The best way would be a checkpoint system similar to ones used by the American Junior Golf Association or the USGA for its amateur championships. Groups are required to hit a certain number of checkpoints (two to four) during the round in a required time. If they are late to one, they get a red card. If they are then late to the next one, they are subject to penalties (depending on the system, everyone in the group wouldn’t necessarily be penalized. For pro Tours with enough officials to time players, they could finger the culprits.)

The Tour does currently monitor the first group of the day according to a “time par” for the purpose of determining if it is technically out of position and subject to timing. But as the field goes through the pace slows down and later groups aren’t policed unless they are super slow and fall behind. A checkpoint system is the only way to speed the overall pace for everyone.

If the pros knew they would have to play faster, they would undoubtedly make more of an effort to be ready to play when it is their turn. For some reason, they seldom take the chance when another player or players in the group are away or have the honor to start thinking about what club to hit or looking at the line of their putt. This alone would make a dent in the slow-play problem. And they would have to start taking less time on the greens, which spectators and television viewers would appreciate.

Don’t hold your breath for such a system to be put into place.

More likely, everyone will continue to complain about slow play. That’s nothing new.

As long ago as 1950, the USGA felt that pace of play was an issue at the U.S. Open. A notice was passed to players on registration to the effect that the snail’s pace of some players was costing the game popularity and they were instructed to “be observant, reach your decision quickly, and execute your shots with promptness and dispatch.”

Two-stroke penalties—and even disqualification for a second offense—were threatened. But no specific system was put in place. It was up to the USGA’s discretion, which would investigate and make certain that the gallery wasn’t responsible (the fairways weren’t lined with ropes in those days, so groups followed by the largest galleries were sometimes slowed down by spectators being in the way). In the end, no penalties were issued even though the pace didn’t noticeably improve for threesomes in the first two rounds—it did help that the final two rounds were played in twosomes instead of threesomes for the first time.

Noting the pace of play at the previous year’s U.S. Open, USGA executive director Joe Dey said, “The time has come that we must act if the game is not to be seriously injured. The thing is getting completely out of hand.”

What was that awful pace of play? In the first round, the first threesome on the course took 3 hours, 27 minutes and the last group 4 hours, 16 minutes; in the second round, the last group took 4 hours, 21 minutes. These days, threesomes are taking more than an hour longer than that.

Faster greens and more prize money may account for some of that difference, but it’s mostly just that players have become accustomed to a slower pace. A checkpoint system is the only way to speed up the herd.

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