Case Study: Pebble Beach Golf Links July 21, 2013 By Bill Yates

Renowned as a championship golf venue and its views of the Pacific Ocean, Pebble Beach is also making its mark as a pace-of-play innovator. (USGA/John Mummert)

It’s no secret that slow play is hurting the game of golf. From municipal courses to private clubs, long rounds, guest complaints, loss of reputation or a decreasing bottom line are driving many courses to take action. Other facilities grapple with players who demand a specific standard of play, one that is at times difficult to meet. For Pebble Beach Resorts, a worldwide golf and luxury destination, figuring out how to manage lofty expectations and provide a seamless golfing experience is of major importance.

Helping the Best Get Better
At iconic Pebble Beach Golf Links wrapped around the crashing surf of the Pacific coast, guests from around the world arrive at the first tee ready for a magical experience they have often waited a lifetime to enjoy. “Our guests have understandably high expectations,” says RJ Harper, Executive Vice President of Golf and Retail at Pebble Beach. “Our goal is to exceed those expectations of every guest, every time.”

Recently, Pebble Beach Company asked for my help in improving their pace of play, a critical element that can tip the balance between a guest’s expectations and their actual experience on the course. Harper and his team were well aware that if players wait on every shot, for example, their perceptions about the value of their investment of time and money erode, and their high expectations for a once-in-a-lifetime Pebble Beach experience will certainly not be met. 

So together we undertook a three-step program to improve the pace of play. Our plan included:

  1. Objectively identifying and assessing the key variables that could cause a negative experience.
  2. Making specific improvement recommendations and building a plan to better manage and control each of those variables.
  3. Implementing the plan and institutionalizing the improvement program.


Identifying Variables and Creating the Plan
To diagnose the problems by assessing each key variable, we spent considerable time out on the course to observe play, study the dynamic interaction of walkers with caddies and players in carts, document individual hole playing and delay times, and observe all golf management job functions, both on the course and in the shop.  We created a course Pace Rating and individual hole Time Pars, and ran computer simulations of play to determine the optimal starting interval.

We then developed a strategic plan of action that included 27 recommendations touching on all areas of management, including course maintenance and setup, staffing, training and job assignments. Senior management gave their enthusiastic approval. “Our plan also incorporated thoughts on how to mitigate those variables we really can’t control,” said Harper. “Examples include the multitude of languages, significant range of skill levels and, of course, extraordinary expectations that players bring to Pebble Beach, group after group, day after day.”

Implementing the Plan
Aware that successful improvement would hinge on how well the Pebble Beach team understood the program and could change the way they looked at the problems, we began with training for management and staff—building communication, understanding, consensus and teamwork from top to bottom.

Pebble Beach Company Director of Golf Shawn Smith arranged schedules and participation in mandatory four-hour training blocks for all members of Pebble Beach management and staff who interact with golfers on the course, from marshals to food and beverage employees. “The training was concise and totally different from what we expected,” he said. “It gave us new knowledge and reshaped the way we now look at and approach the problem of slow play on a day-to-day basis. I am convinced this is why our improvement program is paying dividends.”  

Beyond the classroom, we worked together on the course for two weeks, implementing the recommended changes through individual coaching and skill building for each team member. Because Pebble Beach has a team approach to managing play, team members are trained in all the major job functions and rotate daily through these activities. Pebble Beach Golf Links Head Golf Professional Chuck Dunbar has hands-on involvement with team members. “Every member now understands how the proper performance of each job function impacts the whole guest experience,” he says. “So the team quietly manages the smooth flow of our guests’ activities from the time they arrive at the bag drop to their return to the Pro Shop at the end of their round. The caddies’ involvement has also been important to our success.”

Among the critical items implemented to improve pace of play are the precise maintenance of accurate and consistent starting intervals of 10 minutes by the Tee Captain, as well as having a Pace Manager on the course for the entire day, in addition to our marshals.

Instituting the Program
Keeping any pace of play improvement program successful requires rigorous scrutiny and the buy-in of top executives. “We have full support from Pebble Beach Company senior management,” says Smith. “Each week they review the pace of play and quality reports we send them.”  To ensure a consistent quality experience, actual playing data is captured and reported on an hourly and daily basis, Smith explains. New performance and quality metrics have been added to more finely tune the monitoring of three critical variables. For every group, every day of the year, reports now include:

  • The percentage of starting times, specific to the minute, promised to guests
  • The percentage of caddies arriving at the first tee 15 minutes prior to their starting time
  • The percentage of players arriving at the first tee 15 minutes prior to their starting time


“Through our training, implementation coaching, team-building and performance monitoring, we are now managing the quality of the Pebble Beach experience from check-in to the first tee, and on to the eighteenth green,” says Smith.  

“Our most important success factor came from involving our professional golf staff in the day-to-day management of pace of play and quality,” says Harper. “Now the head professional and all three assistants rotate daily and act as our ‘Pace Manager,’ spending the day on the course with our marshals, starter, tee captain and outside services personnel. The results have been impressive, both for our guests and for our professionals. Staff morale is high, and we all realize that managing the pace and flow of play can be done.”

As a result, explains Harper, round times are now lower and more consistent throughout the day.  The most critical variables are being controlled: groups are starting precisely on time, guests are receiving clear, but pleasant, direction from the staff, and the course delivers smooth-flowing rounds with little or no waiting. These improvements have come together as key elements of the guest experience, silently broadcasting the message of quality and value.

Dedication to Sustainability
Harper and his team are dedicated to sustaining and improving what they started. “Every day is a new challenge, but our training program equipped us to recognize and manage these challenges,” says Harper. “Our focus now is on continuous improvement in what we do, and in what we deliver to our guests. To have made theses strides takes a new way of thinking, a new way of acting and the support of the entire organization. We’re doing that and it’s working. We’re directly tackling a problem to ensure our guests will enjoy the game we all love the way it’s meant to be played.”