Campaign against slow play must move into higher gear
The fun is being taken out of the game as rounds take longerthan ever to complete
There is no reason golf should take this long to play. That's why players at Merion for the US Open received a notice when they registered that warned about pace of play. The fear was that slow play was damaging the game's popularity, and the instructions in the notice could not have been clearer: "Be observant, reach your decision quickly and execute your shots with promptness and dispatch."
Just don't get the idea anything will change. This notice was handed out at the 1950 US Open.
If the players at the US Open this week would read David Barrett's book, Miracle at Merion, on Ben Hogan's victory in 1950, they might laugh. Or maybe cry.
Joe Dey, the USGA's executive director at the time, is quoted in the book as saying: "The time has come when we simply must act if the game is not to be seriously injured."
The size of the field for the 1948 US Open at Riviera was 171 players. It was lowered to 162 players the following year at Medinah, but that didn't seem to help. Dey lamented that the first group (threesomes) took three hours and 27 minutes to complete the opening round, while the last group took a whopping four hours and 16 minutes.
"That is just awful, and it doesn't make sense," Dey said. "It hasn't been so long since three hours was considered adequate for a round. This is murder on spectators as well as on players who wish to play at a reasonable speed."
At the rate championship golf is going, three hours might soon be considered adequate to make the turn.
So when the USGA announced this week it was launching a comprehensive campaign to combat pace of play, there was reason for scepticism.
The campaign is geared towards the recreational game. It will study what causes slow play and attempt to find solutions aimed at the player and golf course management.
That's a good start, because the problem with slow play in golf is not at the professional level. That distinction must be made.
There are exceptions to be sure - a lot of them. Kevin Na and his horrific pre-shot routine of intentional misses at The Players Championship last year. Keegan Bradley and his start-stop-start stride into the ball to play the shot. Guan Tianlang at the Masters. Ben Crane at any tournament.
Tournament golf should abide by the rules, which in this case is Rule 6-7 - play without undue delay. But championship golf is different from the recreational game. The greens are faster than most golf fans can imagine. The golf courses are bigger. Rare is the par-five that can be reached in two shots. It's still a game, but for tour players, it's also their (well paying) jobs.
That's not to suggest tour players don't have an obligation. They owe it to the sport to set a good example. One reason often cited for slow play is that regular golfers try to copy what they watch on TV. And what they see are ridiculous pre-shot routines, reading putts from every conceivable angle and endless study of the yardage book.
Even so, the influence of televised golf is overstated in at least one respect. "If we did everything professionals do, there would be no ball marks on the greens," said Rand Jerris, the USGA's senior managing director of public services.
The USGA, along with the PGA Tour, has embarked on its most extensive study on pace of play. Not to poke fun, but this could take a while. It's not an easy fix because the time it takes to play golf in the US has been sliding in the wrong direction for 60 years or more.
According to a National Golf Foundation study, slow play - defined as having to wait on the group in front more than a few times - was listed by 91 per cent of golfers surveyed as taking away from their golf experience.
Among the areas the USGA is targeting in its campaign:
Designing golf courses where the routing, length and placement of hazards would help move things along. This sounds like a great idea except that hardly anyone is building golf courses in America.
Making the golf course easier (and quicker) to play by limiting the rough, widening the fairways, slowing the greens and providing more accessible hole locations.
Encouraging golf courses to manage the intervals in tee times, such as adding a few more minutes between groups.
- Working on player behaviour to remind them to be ready to play and to use the right set of tees.
The intentions are noble. But when words like "campaign", "education" and "initiative" are used, it's fair to wonder if brainstorming will lead to real results.
For its part, the US Open is making a few changes this year. The starting times for the first two rounds at Merion were moved up 15 minutes to 6.45 am, meaning there should have been a gap of five hours and 48 minutes from when the last morning group teed off and the first afternoon group teed off on the first hole. Tee times this weekend are 11 minutes apart instead of 10 minutes. Every second helps.
But it comes back to a question from 1950 at Merion that so far has no answer.
Why is it no longer reasonable for a three-hour round? As the modern player gets better, the courses have become harder to provide a stronger test. But that would suggest the US Open was not as hard as it is now. Olympic Club in 1955 and Winged Foot in 1974, to name two examples, would suggest otherwise.
And as much as the USGA is trying to find a solution, it surrendered to slow play 11 years ago at Bethpage Black. After 101 years of everyone starting the round at No 1, the US Open went to a two-tee start.
Officials talk about having more daylight by sending players off the front and nine back nine, and the flexibility in case of bad weather. But this would not have been necessary if golf had not slowed to a crawl.
If this new initiative on pace of play doesn't provide any answers, perhaps the words of the great Julius Boros should be considered: "By the time you get to your ball, if you don't know what to do with it, try another sport."