Over the last couple of years the
economy has sadly driven some respectable golf courses out of business. Others
are struggling not to lose golfers who are fed up with what just about everyone
calls the number one problem in golf today—slow play. However, a few courses—those
whose owners and managers have accepted the challenge of thinking and acting
differently—are filling their tee sheets and gaining market share. Take a good
look at these, because they’re going to be the long-term winners. These courses
are emerging from the pack with heightened reputation, increased demand, higher
customer satisfaction, improved staff morale, and…guess what...a much better
bottom line, simply by focusing on the simplest of truths: it’s all about
enjoying the day.
What have these
courses done to keep their players enjoying the day? What they haven’t done is buy into two insidious
myths that nearly everyone believes.
#1: A round of golf should take four hours. This is just ridiculous. Just
as courses have different difficulty ratings, so do they have different Pace
Ratings. The notion of pace rating courses—establishing a reasonable time in
hours and minutes for a foursome to complete 18 holes—was first suggested by
LINKS’s Editor George Peper back in 1994 when he was Editor of GOLF Magazine. The USGA developed the system, and
the moment I saw it, I jumped on the bandwagon. Today I use this great tool
along with other techniques to diagnose the real causes of slow play, eliminate
them, and quantify the improvements.
One of the first
courses I rated was the Old Course at St Andrews
which has a pace rating of under four hours—3:57 to be exact—and makes that
known to all who step to the first tee. Indeed many if not most golf courses,
when managed properly, should be navigated in less than four hours.
#2: It’s all the players’ fault. Most often it’s not their fault at
all, any more than gridlocked freeways are the fault of commuters. That is not
to say golfers are blameless, simply that they share the responsibility. In
truth there are five major causes of slow play: 1) Management Policies and
Practices, 2) Player Behavior, 3) Player Ability, 4) Course Maintenance and
Setup, and 5) Course Design. We’ll look at these shortly. Meanwhile, think
about every slow play “solution” you’ve ever heard. Does any of them address
all five of these factors, or do they focus only on the players? No wonder they
let’s get back to what these successful courses have done. In a nutshell, they have involved all the stakeholders
in the course’s commitment to success: the course managers, the players, the superintendents,
and even the architects. Each of these stakeholders holds one of the keys to
whether or not a player will enjoy the day. Think about the five factors and
who controls each factor.
Course Managers: How the course is
managed has the biggest single impact on pace of play. Choosing the right
starting interval is one example. The good news is that unlike a crowded
freeway, overcrowding on a golf course (a big reason for slow play) can be
completely controlled by managers, as there’s only one on-ramp. Just as courses
have different pace ratings, they have different optimal starting intervals. Some
can start groups every seven minutes, some need ten-minute intervals. When I
work with a course, I run computer simulations that show what the starting
interval will do to the pace of play. The proper interval can reduce round
times by 30 minutes or more, while maintaining or even increasing revenue. We
improved the average round time at a world-famous Canadian resort by 55 minutes,
and the general manager commented, “It’s like you’ve given me an additional
course to use!” Later this year I’ll launch the second generation GPS technology, which will give managers the
ultimate tools to identify and fix trouble areas before they begin to impact quality.
control everyday management practices, communications, physical locations,
check-in procedures, staff behaviors, and customer service, all of which impact
slow play and the overall playing experience. Some courses have a list of
policies that actually encourage play
to be slow (see sidebar) and players can learn to spot these danger signs when
choosing where to play.
Players: Players do have some
responsibility, but the orders such as “play ready golf, line up your putt and
be ready, and take two clubs to your next shot” are isolated weapons in a big
war. However, when combined with a properly loaded course and a well-trained marshal
team, faster play techniques will make a big difference. Players can also set
the stage for their own enjoyment with a few of my favorite tips:
Arrive at the course in plenty of time to check in,
warm up and make your way to the first tee.
Arriving late upsets the flow of play off the first tee.
Consider your starting time as a contract with
the course. The first ball of your
foursome should be in the air on your starting time, not before and not
Be courteous. Lose the “I paid my money, so I’ll
play as slow as I want” attitude.
Talk with your group as you play and work together
to manage the gap in front of you. For
example, if you started the round on a par 4, the group ahead of you should
have been just approaching the first green as you teed off. Manage the space so
when you arrive at the next tee you’ll see the same gap and won’t have to wait
to tee off or run to catch up.
A word about
player ability: Today’s courses have from three to six tee boxes on each hole ready
to welcome players of all levels. Choose the right tees so you can reach the
green on your second shot and enjoy the occasional par or birdie--take some
responsibility for enjoying the day. Quoting golf course architect Alice Dye,
“Who wants to play two woods and a wedge to every hole?”
Course Superintendents: The greenkeeper
holds the success of your day in the palm of his hand. Growing the rough,
putting hole locations behind bunkers and moving tee markers back can all make
the course play faster. Surprised? When
properly executed and when coupled with other elements of a pace-improvement
program, course maintenance can actually reduce round times. Superintendents
can easily avoid the biggest pace-slowing issues:
- Don’t copy tournament courses with
narrow fairways mowed like greens, lush deep rough, or extreme rough
located just off the fairway, on the inside of doglegs, or in areas blind
from the tee. Do consider
adding rough to keep balls from rolling into even more trouble.
- Do experiment with the use of heavy
rough or shaved chipping areas around greens, but don’t make them too severe or scores and the pace of play will
- Don’t create ultra-fast greens
that are most players’ nightmare.
- Don’t move tees too far forward to
speed up play. This could either bring into play additional hazards for
the average golfer or cause a wait on the next tee because the hole is
played too quickly. The most successful courses don’t make their players
play faster, they help them play a smooth round which takes less time to
Course Architects: When I began
studying the dynamics of pace of play, I asked an industry big-wig to put me in
touch with Pete
Dye. His response: “What’s an architect got to do
with pace of play?”
about everything,” I said.
the elements of a course’s Pace Rating—playing length, severity and location of
obstacles, and green-to-tee distances—and think about who is responsible for
these? The course design determines how
long it should take to play. Through the design, the architect also
controls the hole sequencing (pattern of par 3, 4 and 5 holes), which
determines the flow and rhythm of play. Here’s an all-too-familiar example. The
first hole is a long uphill par 5 and is followed by a par 3 of more than 200 yards. Cresting the
hill to the first green, you are horrified to see the two groups ahead of you waiting
to tee off on number 2. Fifteen minutes
into your round and you’re already chewing nails. The pace of play begins on
the architect’s drawing board so a little planning ahead can make all the
The bottom line? The architect
determines how long it should take to
play a course, and the course manager, superintendent, and players all
determine how long it does take to
play the course. Successful courses bring all these stakeholders onto their
pace improvement team.
is founder of Pace Manager Systems®, Pebble Beach,
California.Visit more Simpler Game stories here.