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15 Mar

Throwing the Book at Slow Play!

Keith Barrett

SLOW PLAY. It’s a subject which has been in the golfing news a fair amount this year with several highly publicised incidents on the US PGA and European Tours: JB Holmes prevaricating for over 4 minutes before playing his second shot on the 72nd hole of the Farmers Insurance Open; Kevin Na taking what felt like an eternity to make a putt from roughly a metre at the Genesis Open; former Open Champion Paul Lawrie openly criticising tour rookie, Aaron Rai, for taking far too long over every shot during the Qatar Masters (unless a tournament official happened to be in attendance at which point he allegedly speeded up); Francesco Molinari and Tyrrell Hatton getting upset by, as they saw it, unfair application of the slow play rules during the WGC Mexico Championship. It’s certainly a topic which gets a lot of players, pros and amateurs alike, hot under the collar.

​A couple of years ago, in a concerted effort to eradicate this curse from our sport, the R&A published a Pace of Play Manual. It identified three main factors which it believes are responsible for sluggish play: Management Practices, Course Set-up and Player Behaviour. So, bearing in mind recent events and the imminent start of a busy golfing season here in Portugal, now is probably an opportune moment to remind all golfers, and course managers, about some of the more interesting (and practical) ideas put forward by the R&A in 2016.

Management Practices

Too Many Players: Overcrowding golf courses is apparently the most common cause of slow play and that problem starts with tee times that have narrow intervals. According to researchers 8 minute intervals create delays within three holes of the first groups venturing on to the course, but 10 minute intervals generally don’t. I’ll let the R&A elucidate:

When play is in two-balls an interval of at least 8 minutes is recommended. When play is in three-balls this should be increased to at least 10 minutes. When play is in four-balls, 11 or even 12 minute intervals should be considered. A good guide is that the starting interval should not be shorter than the time it should take to play the quickest hole on the course, and this becomes particularly relevant when that hole features early in the round.

It’s simple really, but try telling that to a Golf Director at a facility in the Algarve or close to Lisbon when they’re looking to maximise course revenue. By adopting 10 or 12 minute tee time intervals, as opposed to 8 or 9 minutes, they’ll potentially lose several hundred euros in green fees per hour during the high season periods.

However, research has also shown that visiting golfers are prepared to pay an average of 9.1% more for a significant improvement in pace of play (that’s just 15-30 minutes quicker) and those younger than forty would apparently pay 14.2% more. Plus faster rounds should enhance customer enjoyment/satisfaction and potentially lead to repeat business – which is always welcome. So there’s some food for thought for Golf Directors. Unfortunately I think most of them will opt for the "lets get maximum revenue today" approach and fill their courses to bursting point.

Ready Golf: This is a no-brainer and will finally be included in the Rules of Golf in the near future. It can have a seriously positive impact on the pace of play. In my opinion and the R&A’s, golf club managers and starters should encourage all players to adopt the ready golf concept – even during competitions which is often when golfers experience the worst delays. It’s not complicated, it just requires the application of a modicum of common sense:

  • Hitting a shot when safe to do so if a player farther away faces a challenging shot and is taking time to assess their options
  • Shorter hitters playing first from the tee or fairway if longer hitters have to wait
  • Hitting a tee shot if the person with the honour is delayed in being ready to play
  • Hitting a shot before helping someone to look for a lost ball
  • Putting out even if it means standing close to someone else’s line
  • Hitting a shot if a person who has just played from a greenside bunker is still farthest from the hole but is delayed due to raking the bunker
  • When a player’s ball has gone over the back of a green, any player closer to the hole but chipping from the front of the green should play while the other player is having to walk to their ball and assess their shot

Course Set-up

Obviously there are numerous ways in which the course set-up can help to improve the pace of play – wider fairways, less rough, fewer hazards and slower, more receptive greens. They’re all common sense measures, but I particularly liked the following suggestion regarding teeing grounds - Gender Neutral Tees.

To encourage players to use the correct tees – those commensurate with their ability – clubs could avoid having designated men’s and women’s tees. Instead of red tees being associated with ladies golf (and men naturally being reluctant to play from them) simply change the tee marker colour and refer to all tees as forward, middle and back. Evidence shows that once the stigma of playing from the reds is removed, men are more likely to choose to play from the forward tees and are subsequently faster around the course. It’s a really smart and simple idea – especially at a club which has a significant number of elderly members or visitors.

West Cliffs, the stunning links course which opened near Obidos last year, has taken this concept one step further. Its teeing grounds are named according to length: the front tees are known as the 45’s (from these tees the course is 4,533 metres long) and the back tees are the 63’s (6,382m), and there are three additional teeing grounds in between. Gender specific tees are consequently not an issue.

Player Behaviour

Being Ready To Play: One of the most frustrating aspects of modern day golf is being stuck behind a group which casually wanders down the fairway and then stops to watch each person play their shot. It’s as if they need to hold a committee meeting before somebody can hit a ball. Personally it drives me up the proverbial wall and, as the R&A discovered, it’s the main complaint against slow players. But Being Ready To Play is actually very easy to implement, and it complements the Ready Golf concept outlined above. I’ll let the R&A explain:

While taking care not to distract other players or compromise safety, all that is required is that a player should do the following while waiting for others to play:

  • Walk efficiently to the ball putting their glove on in the process
  • Assess the shot, including any calculation of distance the player wants to make, or line up the putt, and
  • Make a decision on club selection

It is even more important that the first person in a group to play carries out these tasks promptly. Combined with an efficient pre-shot routine, the seconds that can be taken off each stroke by being ready to play, multiplied by the number of strokes played each round, multiplied by the number of players in a group, can have a massively positive impact on the time it takes to play a round of golf. For example: Each player in a four-ball takes an average of 5 seconds less to play each shot. Each player plays 80 shots. 80 shots x 5 seconds x 4 players = 26 minutes and 40 seconds. That means that, ignoring all other variables, the four-ball would play in 26 minutes and 40 seconds less time simply by shaving off an average of 5 seconds per shot.

I think you'd agree that none of these measures are difficult to implement so surely, with a bit of common sense, we can easily eliminate the 5 hour round. If we don't then this wonderful game of ours is in danger of losing an even greater number of participants because the only people who will have the necessary time and inclination to play regularly will be the retired and elderly. And, with all due respect, that's not a good recipe for growing the game!

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