PACE OF PLAY
On the Tee at Rancho Park, USGA Works to Lessen the Wait August 1, 2017 By Lauren Johnson, USGA

The USGA used GPS loggers to collect data about waiting and round times at Rancho Park. (USGA/Jonathan Kolbe)

Rancho Park Golf Course is a jewel of American golf. Owned and operated by the city of Los Angeles, the facility has hosted prestigious events and some of the biggest names in the game have made history there.

Three years after the city bought the course, which was originally a private club, Rancho Park hosted the 1949 U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship. Over the ensuing decades, Arnold Palmer, Billy Casper, Nancy Lopez and JoAnne Gunderson Carner won there. Jack Nicklaus earned his first check as a professional golfer, earning $33.33 in the 1962 Los Angeles Open.

But in a city known for celebrities, Rancho Park’s character and personality are not defined by Hollywood stars. Rather, its identity is shaped by the city’s everyday golfers, who log more than 100,000 rounds a year on the layout. Every day, the course is a gathering place for Angelenos looking for a respite from the pressures and stresses of the second-biggest city in the country. These regulars, who have come from all over the world, tee off in multilingual foursomes – and sometimes fivesomes and even sixsomes – bound by the common language of golf.

They start arriving well before dawn, changing their shoes in the near blackness of the parking lot lit by a single lamp. They hoist their bags on push carts and hit their first shots half an hour before sunrise. These West Coast counterparts to Bethpage’s overnight campers exude hope, perseverance and resilience, and their passion for the game lights up the first tee.

The Downside of Popularity

The problem with all these rounds at Rancho Park is its impact on golfer experience. Golfers consistently cite pace of play as one most important factors in the enjoyment of a round. At the very crowded Rancho, a round can take a long time – up to six hours at peak times.

At a busy facility like Rancho Park, poor pace of play is difficult to solve due to player volume – it is as if the course perpetually resembles the traffic jams on nearby Santa Monica Freeway during rush hour. But the city exacerbated the problem with a policy that created delays even before golfers teed off.

In 2015, the tee-time interval was six minutes between groups, with two starter’s times every hour, which made the effective interval 7½ minutes. But six minutes did not allow enough time for a group to tee off and clear the landing area before the next group was supposed to tee off. This pattern caused a backup on the first tee. Even with the starter’s times, pre-round delays started mounting; a group with a 10:30 a.m. tee time would find themselves teeing off well after 11.

When it comes to customer satisfaction in any industry – restaurants, amusement parks and airlines, for example – setting and meeting expectations is a key factor. Diners who make reservations expect to be seated within 10-15 minutes of arrival. Amusement parks publish wait times that are longer than actual waits in order to exceed patrons’ expectations. Similarly, airlines have pushed back scheduled arrival times in order to accommodate increasingly common delays due to congestion. Although the actual flight times – takeoff to touchdown – have not changed over the decades, passengers today are pleasantly surprised when a flight arrives “early” and the airline’s on-time performance improves.

In golf, time is no less important. There is a reason clocks are nearly ubiquitous next to first tees: When you have a tee time, you expect to start playing at that time.

But not at Rancho Park. As described above, the course was booking tee times beyond the capacity of the course. As a result, golfers were not happy with their time spent on the course – both before and during the round. A common refrain walking off the 18th green would be: “The round took five hours. Plus, we teed off 40 minutes late!”

The USGA began a study to help the city of Los Angeles improve the golfer experience at Rancho Park. The first step was to figure out the root of the problem. 

In addition to measuring pace of play, the GPS loggers can show traffic patterns on the course for golfers. (USGA)

Initial Research: Methodology

In 2015, the USGA hired several interns to collect data at Rancho Park. On the first tee, they handed out small GPS loggers to golfers, who were asked to keep them in their pockets. In addition, the interns noted non-identifiable characteristics of each golfer, such as gender, mode of transport, tees played and – most significantly – their booked tee time.

These GPS loggers, which are about the size of a pack of gum, do not transmit information in real time. Rather, they record position every five seconds. The interns collected the loggers near the 18th green. 

VIDEO: What do the GPS loggers do?

This process ensures the privacy of the participating golfers while also collecting valuable data about golfers’ on-course behavior that is useful to facility managers. Using a proprietary software program, the USGA can measure the round times for every group as well as the gaps between groups.

The golf course is the primary product that it offers to its customers. Understandably, they spend a lot of money – usually more than half the facility’s budget – to grow and maintain the grass upon which golfers play.

While most facility managers have a general understanding of how golfers utilize their product in time and space, precise on-course data can help facility managers to apply their finite resources more productively and more efficiently, while also maximizing the experience of their customers.

In addition to measuring pace precisely, the GPS loggers are useful for mapping golfers’ tracks on the course. Instead of maintaining the entire course uniformly, the heat map of golfers’ tracks provides facilities with information that can help them allocate their maintenance resources to the areas that most impact the golfer experience.

This graph shows the round times at Rancho Park in both 2015 and 2016. Note how round times climb through the day as the course gets more crowded. (USGA)

What We Found

Typically, the busiest days for golf courses are weekends, which is when most people have time for leisure activities. Rancho Park, however, attracts a high volume of players every day of the week, resulting in the following consistent pattern for round times on any given day.

  • The first groups – the earliest of them teeing off in the dark – played quickly, finishing their rounds in less than four hours. However, round times climbed rapidly as the morning progressed, reaching almost six hours for groups teeing off between 11 a.m. and noon.
  • This increase in round times is normal for a busy course. This occurs because the on-course cycle time – the gap between groups as they play – is greater than the starting interval. And this gap is cumulative. If the starting interval is 10 minutes but the average cycle time is 11 minutes, each group adds one minute of the round time to every group behind it. So the round time for the 30th group will be 30 minutes longer than that of the first group.
  • At Rancho Park, the average cycle time for groups finishing their rounds was nine minutes, 45 seconds. The average actual starting interval was eight minutes, 10 seconds. This 90-second difference meant that by the 60th group, round times had increased by 90 minutes.
  • Keep in mind that the starting interval of 8:10 was the actual gap between groups. The average scheduled interval was 7:30, which meant that Rancho Park golfers had to endure an additional cumulative wait of 40 seconds per group between their scheduled starting times and when they really teed off.

 

In order to improve the golfer experience at Rancho Park, the USGA recommended that the city of Los Angeles increase the scheduled tee time interval to at least 8 minutes to match the actual starting gaps and eliminate pre-round delays. Further increasing the interval would reduce round times.

In the spring of 2016, the city instituted eight-minute intervals at all their courses, but the greatest potential benefit would be at its busiest facility, Rancho Park. In late 2016, the USGA returned to Rancho Park to measure the impact of this policy change.

The increase in Rancho Park's tee-time interval from six to eight minutes nearly eliminated golfers' pre-round waits between the booked starting time and the actual starting time. (USGA)

The Impact of Eight-Minute Intervals

The biggest change was the elimination of pre-round delays. In 2016, the median starting interval was seven minutes, 45 seconds, which was actually lower than in 2015. Due to a lack of a starter, this is the naturally occurring interval when players decide to tee off after the group in front clears the landing area.

Since the scheduled interval is eight minutes, the pre-round wait disappeared. This change alone resulted in a significant decrease in time spent at the course, especially for groups teeing off in the middle of the day.

The elimination of pre-round delays improved the golfer experience for Rancho Park’s customers, as they no longer had to factor in a pre-round wait into their day. They could plan their day more accurately and their golfer experience was more predictable.

Much of the feedback from golfers mirrored the reaction of Tom Walsteder, a regular at Rancho Park.

“Historically, pace of play here has been slow. There is a lot of play because of the lack of public courses in the area. But it’s improved a little bit in the last year since the tee times have been spread out a bit.”

However, there was little impact on round times. The cycle time for groups walking off the 18th green was still nearly two minutes longer than starting intervals, so round times still went up as the day progressed.

While round times did not decrease, the city of Los Angeles’ ability to meet golfers’ expectations regarding tee times created a perceived improvement in pace of play and a corresponding elevation in the golfer experience.

And that’s just the start, as the USGA is continually working to find solutions to make the game more enjoyable for all who play it.

Lauren Johnson is the data analyst for the USGA’s Research, Science and Innovation department. Email her at ljohnson@usga.org.

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