A major part of the USGA’s mission to ensure the game’s sustainability is by improving pace of play. To that end, the USGA has been accumulating data to uncover the causes of slow play, the first step in the process of developing tools and solutions that will help golf facilities improve pace of play at their courses..This past summer, USGA Technical Director Matt Pringle and USGA Research Engineer Scott Mingay led a project to study thousands of rounds around the country.
The data was collected by P.J. Boatwright Jr. Research Interns based at eight state and regional golf associations (SRGAs): Chicago District Golf Association, Colorado Golf Association, New Jersey State Golf Association, Golf Association of Philadelphia, Southern California Golf Association, Texas Golf Association, Virginia State Golf Association and Washington State Golf Association. Pringle, who will share the findings during the USGA’s Pace of Play Symposium, Nov.12-13, discussed this work with USGA Senior Staff Writer David Shefter.
Where are we in terms of the USGA’s pace-of-play study?
Pringle: We’re not at the results phase yet. We’re still in the analysis phase. But I would be shocked if we don’t come out with a number of actionable items. I think this shows the USGA’s commitment to solutions. It seems in golf all anyone wants to do is talk about problems. We’re trying to do something about it.
How many courses and people were involved in the study?
Pringle: We recorded data from 5,396 rounds this summer at 135 golf courses. They were private, public and municipal. Most of the rounds were recreational, but there were some state/regional competitions and some USGA qualifiers. We had an average of 40 golfers per event and the gender breakdown was 87 percent men and 13 percent women.
Did the USGA develop the program?
Pringle: We went from never having done anything like this to having eight interns stationed around the country plugging these GPS units into their computer. The beauty of it is the raw data doesn’t change. It’s just a series of locations and times. But Scott [Mingay] is able to make tweaks to his program to allow us to measure other metrics. It’s a database and statistical analysis. It’s all singing and all dancing.
How big is the GPS device?
Pringle: You stick it in your pocket. They’re like the size of a flash drive. And they just record your position every five seconds. It doesn’t transmit data; it just collects. It’s time and location. That’s it. The golfer played with that and gave it back after the 18th hole.
What other pieces of information did you collect from the golfers?
Pringle: On the first tee, the intern would ask the golfers a handful of questions. We would collect the age, the gender and the handicap if they had one. We asked them how far they drove the ball, how far they hit their 9-iron, walking versus carts, and if they used a caddie. We would note which tee they hit from. We would collect if it was cart path only, 90 degrees or carts everywhere. All that is in the data sheet. They would ask the superintendent about green speed, rough height and difficulty of hole locations. Were they easy, medium or difficult? We’d also get the weather conditions for that day.
Where did the information go?
Pringle: After collecting the units, the interns plugged them into a USB drive and used Scott’s program to download the data. What Scott’s program would do is map and locate the greens and tees. They were landmarks. His program would automatically compute the track. We don’t know where they hit from because it’s just recording time and location. But we can measure their speed. How long does it take to play 100 yards of a golf course? It would compute when [the golfer] started the first hole and when they finished the first hole. Most importantly, how far behind the first group was the second group and how far behind the second group was the third group. That flow rate is the key.
Explain flow rate.
Pringle: It’s just like it is on the New Jersey Turnpike. When you use Google Maps on your phone to plan a route, it knows the traffic flow. It doesn’t know where every individual car is, it just knows things are flowing at 40 mph. That’s what we’re looking at. That’s why it isn’t important where exactly they hit their shot, but all that matters is how fast can golfers move around a golf course. If you as a golf course operator try to put more golfers on it than can flow through it, then traffic jams occur.
Have you seen any trends from the raw data?
Pringle: We’re in the midst of processing these 5,000 to 6,000 rounds, so we can get the flow rates and try to correlate them to all those other variables that we collected. Then we can say here’s what affected flow rate. So in 2015, we can actually deliver some actionable advice.
What are some of the culprits of slow play?
Pringle: First and foremost, we’re pointing to the fundamentals of tee-sheet management. Very few golf courses have an active measurement and control system. At the end of the day, I always say that a golf course is like a factory that is producing rounds of golf. DuPont doesn’t try to run a chemical plant without measurement and control. We shouldn’t be running golf factories without measurement and control, either. Even if just basic measurements are taken, I think the golf course operator will realize a lot of improvement.
The USGA has also developed another piece of technology to help pace of play on the golf course. Can you discuss this innovative flagstick tool and what it can do to improve pace of play?
Pringle: In the hole is a magnet and at the bottom of the flagstick is a sensor. So it can detect when the flagstick comes in and out of the hole. That signal then goes up into a little computer inside the flagstick. There’s a little GPS unit in there that tells us where the flagstick is and there’s a radio transmitter. That data can be sent back to a central computer, but the beauty of this is it can also talk to the next flagstick. The range doesn’t have to be very far. It just has to get to the next flagstick. Just like Google is measuring the flow of traffic, this is telling us the flow of golfers. For those golf courses that don’t have a sophisticated GPS system or where you don’t take carts and walk, this is going to give them a cost-effective way to get the measurement they need to have control of the golf factory.
When will this device become available?
Pringle: We’re working with Spectrum Technologies, which is the same company that we licensed the TruFirm technology to [TruFirm is a USGA-developed tool to measure firmness of greens]. We’re partnering with them to develop this prototype system and they are going to have a working demo at the Pace of Play Symposium. We’re targeting February or March to have an 18-hole prototype system to put on a golf course and start fleshing out that this will actually work.
Do you envision every golf course using such a device?
Pringle: We’ll walk before we run. I think the logical thing to do would be to put them in the hands of some SRGAs (state and regional golf associations) to test them in competitions where the environment is more controlled, but we’re considering several different business models. Right now, I’m more focused on getting a system that works.
Many courses have player-assistance personnel on the course, but there sometimes can be frustration among golfers regarding their effectiveness. How can this problem be remedied?
Pringle: That’s the whole measurement and control thing. Whether with a cart-based GPS system or a flagstick tool or with a stopwatch, the key is to measure the gap between groups and then control that gap. The gap is measured by something we call “cycle time,” a term that will hopefully become more commonly understood and accepted. Because if you can balance cycle times with a reasonable tee-time interval, that’s 90 percent of pace problems.
Are golfers educated enough to understand flow?
Pringle: We know how critical it is that groups stay in position with each other. Do individual golfers know that yet? I don’t think so, and especially if nobody is telling them. If you go out there as a marshal and tell a group they are 15 minutes behind the group in front of them and we need you to be 10 minutes behind, and then if he comes back two holes later and you are 20 minutes behind, now that’s a problem. But if you are taking steps, OK, now the train is moving again. I’m hopeful that’s what the data is going to show us. This is how critical that is.
What is the ideal interval for tee times?
The ideal interval depends on the golf course and the golfers. It’s all about matching the flow onto the golf course to the flow through the golf course. If a group can flow easily, you can tee them off eight minutes apart. If the course is difficult or they aren’t matched well to the course, and it takes groups, on average, 12 minutes to fall behind, then if you have anything less than a 12-minute interval, you’re going to cause a bottleneck.
Have you worked with any of the professional tours on this issue?
Pringle: Their organizers have the same problems as golf course operators in trying to balance that flow rate. We worked closely with the LPGA Tour this year as they have taken steps to improve that balance. They did that not by going and pointing fingers at their players, but from a policy standpoint. They’ve extended their tee intervals, they’ve put in new policies to reinforce the notion of keeping pace with the group in front, and those two things have paid huge dividends for them. And they would pay dividends for any course. I think we can hold them up as an example of doing the right thing.