Golf Escargot

Slow play: the last word, or we made us what we are today

By Frank Hannigan, USGA
April 4, 2013

Any rational discussion of the ravages of slow play rests on two truths, held by the USGA to be self-evident.

1.         Golf is a slower game than it used to be.
2.         We would have a better game if the pace was faster.

Should there be a reader, at this point, who contests either premise he or she should get off this page now. Read something uplifting or take up tennis. Adios, and play well on the tour.

Slow play has acquired the celebrity of Twain’s weather in that everybody seems to be talking about it. So why isn’t something drastic done about it? Because, friends, (the enemies having left one paragraph earlier), it is a singularly complex malady. Above all, we have brought it upon ourselves by accepting or implementing changes put forward in misguided attempts to better the game.

It’s no good saying slow play happens because golfers, when it’s their turn to play, are not yet ready to play. That’s like saying, “My foot is cold because I’m out here in the snow with only one shoe on.” It’s true, but only superficially. Why you are enduring snow, half unshod, is a more interesting question, and the answers may be varied and subtle, e.g., you are stupid, poor, masochistic, or a combination of the three. Thus, a listing of but some of the causes for slow play is offered, followed by the author's observations on each:

1. Course Length: Golf courses are longer today than those of 30 years ago. It follows they require a longer time to traverse. Innovations in the craft of producing golf equipment make it somewhat easier to propel a golf ball more than 200 yards, but general increase in course length has far outstripped technology.

Observation: We have been conned by the meaningless and cheap promotional phrase “championship course,” which translates into something longer than 7,000 yards. Is not sublime Merion 6,500 yards from all the way back? How big is the Mona Lisa? There should be a law forbidding the construction of long golf courses. Any golf course architect found guilty of designing a course longer than 7,000 yards, with a tolerance of 2 percent, should be punished by having to go to work for a living.

2. Handicapping: The contemporary American vision of golf includes complex handicapping, all found in the USGA Golf Handicap System, replete with such exotica as “equitable stroke control,” “differential” and “course rating” (expressed, of course, in decimals). What it adds up to is a stultifying compulsion to play almost everything into the hole. Can there be anything more ludicrous, in the entire spectrum of sport, than a person of any sex, with a bona fide USGA Handicap of 33, perspiring over a four-foot putt for a seven?

Observation: That ventricle of the American mentality satisfied by decimal points provides a beneficial flip side, the growth and stability of regional and district golf associations, ever so much more useful and effective since seizing upon the computer, used for “centralized handicapping” as a relatively painless method of producing capital. Indeed, the growth and influence of the other-than-national golf bodies is one of the great, unwritten golf stories. Too bad, like all good things, it comes with a price.

3. Rules of Golf Changes: Some of the primary Rules changes, under the guise of equity, have brought about many actions not related to the playing of a stroke. The classic cases occur in Rules 16-1c and 16-1b, which allow, respectively, for the repair of ball marks and unrestricted lifting and cleaning of the ball on the putting green. It seems so long ago, but these two changes took place as late as 1960. Imagine, Ben Hogan somehow managed to win four U.S. Open titles without these benefices, and yet many thought the USGA was identifying a most appropriate champion at the time.

Observation: The search for absolute and pure equity, in each round, in each stroke, is a false quest – and a good excuse to recall that the late A. J. Liebling characterized the University of Chicago, during the 1930s, as the greatest collection of neurotic juveniles since the Children’s Crusade (speaking of false quests).

But wait. The great perverters of the sacred principle Play the Course As You Find It are not yet appeased. They are still at the gates and their next move will surely be to tell you that it's an unfair game that does not permit the repair of “spike marks.” Further, they will tell you that the repair of “spike marks” will quicken the game. Statistics will be produced on the latter point, as statistics invariably are produced whenever the Big Lie technique is used.

4. The Death of the Caddie: Who can argue with the contention that golf is both a better and faster game when played with a single caddie?

Observation: Forget it. The single caddie’s status is like that of the Whooping Crane, perhaps with a lesser chance of survival.

5. Automotive Golf Carts: The self-propelled cart, properly routed and used, can expedite play. Alas, this is often not the case because: (a) many drivers of carts, and their passengers, are boobs, and (b) paths for carts are often located out of bounds, some in other counties, and there is a notice posted, saying that if you stray from a path, a man with a stubbly beard, who doubled for Mack Swain in “The Gold Rush,” will puncture your tires.

Observation: Forget it, again. Trustees for caddie scholarship funds will soon be attempting to interview golf carts. Golf carts translate into revenue. They are here to stay. Blessed and lucky is the golfer who plays where carts are severely restricted, and may he wallow in his last days of pleasure.

6. Winter Rules: Richard S. Tufts, a sage in the hierarchy of golf administrators, was quoted somewhere to the effect that we have become a nation of nudgers. Mr. Tufts may have been thinking of more than golf, but surely the game was on his facile mind, as it always has been. Nudging the ball, picking it up, cleaning it, placing it, dropping it, or whatever, takes time.

Observation: It is said that the second of Mr. Tufts’ great principles, Play The Ball As It Lies, has never been heard of in entire counties of Florida, There are, however, rays of hope in this branch of the sewer of slow play. The “Stamp out Winter Rules!” campaign, proclaimed by USGA President Harry Easterly, has evoked some interesting vibrations. How about Hale Irwin, quoted in Golf World, after a tour event at which winter rules were used: “It’s not golf anymore when you can put your hands on the ball before it gets to the green...I’d rather play off the mud and the rocks. This has taken all the skill out of having to know how to hit from all kinds of lies.” Hale Irwin, we who are about to fall asleep on courses all over America, salute you. (The USGA Fairness Doctrine requires notification that Winter Rules are less prevalent on the pro tour than in the past.

7. The Pro Tour: Ah, here we approach a touchy area. Better to jump right in. The influence of the tour, in the greatest boom period in the history of the game, was somnambulant. There is, to lapse into tour jargon, “no way” to exaggerate the influence of the tour, especially as it is perceived on television. Joe Black, a superb club professional and once the tour’s chief administrator, has said there are three reasons why play on the tour just might appear to be a bit tardy: money, money and money.

Observations: Nothing, but nothing, would ameliorate the rot in American golf, as much as an edict from the Federal Communications Commission banning all golf on television for 12 months. The ban on cigarette advertising could be cited as a precedent: “Golf on TV is bad for the health of your game.” Just imagine golfers no longer plumb-bobbing six-footers, never searching for grain they can’t recognize, no longer agonizing over club selection on par-3 holes they can’t reach with a driver, and being cleansed of that latest horror, the 20-yard walk-off, forward and back, to and from a “reference point.” Unfortunately, a ban on TV golf would, as a concomitant, mean that some of us who depend on golf TV revenue to feed and clothe our ungrateful children might also have to go to work for a living. (Again, the Fairness Doctrine: The tour is increasingly cognizant and concerned about the pace of play. Commissioner Deane Beman says he has alerted his subalterns to use watches to prove to malefactors that they linger in dire threat of penalties.)

8. Bad USGA Example: Never, in the history of USGA championships, has Rule 6-7 , calling for a penalty for “undue delay,” been invoked.

Observation: Sigh.

9. The Mental Anguish Cop-out: We have been sold a soggy bag of goods claiming that the bigger the stakes, the more time the player must take in order to do his best. So it is every time there is a stroke play qualifying round in a club event and, boy, so it is in the U.S. Open.

Observation: At one Open, the elapsed time for the last third of the field, for the first round – playing in groups of three, with single caddies and enough forecaddies to preclude a search, let alone a lost ball, varied between five hours 15 minutes and five hours 35 minutes. Veritably, we were witness to the Medinah Death March, justified by the grim marchers, no doubt, because the course was difficult and the prize was high (immortality itself).

The next day began with play continuing at the same funeral pace. Then there was visited upon Medinah an electrical storm. Play was halted for nearly an hour. Given the established pace, there was “no way” for the round to be completed. We awaited the dark, swatting mosquitoes, morose in the thought that players would be strung out all over the course when play would have to be suspended, because of darkness. No one spoke a word of approbation.

Then a mini-miracle. The players, activating their inner clocks, figured out what was going on and started to move, no doubt ignited by the inspiration of soggy Medinah at 6:30 the following morning, when play might be resumed. Result: the last third of the field the second day required four hours 15 minutes to four hours 30 minutes to play 18 holes, an improvement of one hour. All finished before dark. Same players, same course, average score the first round: 75.87; average the second round: 74.98.

10. The Rush-Hour Syndrome: Golf courses are more crowded today than of yore. The analogy is to that of the Lincoln Tunnel – a quick ride through the killing fumes in off hours, but a never-ending nightmare during commuting times.

Observation: We could build more courses or get rid of some golfers. Perhaps the same computers used for “centralized handicapping” might be put to double duty in the form of a lottery. Every 10th golfer gets shot.

The honest practitioner of medicine, having tripled his malpractice coverage, having established that a sickness is upon his patient, and having diagnosed, must now think on modes for cure. There would seem to be but three realms of opportunity:

1.Legislative: Turn back the clock. Obliviate Rules 16-1c and 16-1b for openers, and then stop giving relief, without penalty, for blemishes through the green.

Alas, this is unlikely. It is a fact of life that once a code is liberalized, the political pressures against reverting to a harder, though more sensible, line are overwhelming. New York City bond-holders are painfully aware of this syndrome.

The legislative approach is bound to come up empty. Oh, there might be some gain in the kind of gimmickry that would allow for the introduction of something known as a “putting ball,” but it would further defile the game.

2. Punitive: Very little succeeds like fear, credibly planted, but golf administrators, contrary to the common canard, are generally a romantic and soft lot. They hesitate to invoke Rule 6-7, in all its grim power, because they know, in their hearts, that it is a form of penalty by whim, i.e., you put two strokes on A, knowing all the while, that B, obscured by the fortune of a pairing with two fast players, or starting near the end of the field – where it’s almost, impossible to fall behind – is getting away with murder. The issue of using Rule 37-7 looms as large as whether the end justifies the means, the end in this instance being the good of the game, the means being a form of punishment by example—the kind of thing even the Army has stopped.

There is a form of more rational, threatened punishment, used effectively by the USGA in some of its competitions, to wit, the Junior Amateur, Amateur Public Links and Senior Amateur Championships. This consists of telling each group it is expected to complete five holes in an arbitrary time (usually about 65 minutes) and nine holes in no more than two hours. It is enforced with sophisticated administrative techniques including walkie-talkies. It works.

On the club level, punishment is a matter, as it must be, of local option. But where are the officers at equity clubs, looking at bottom lines during a recession, willing to speak harshly to slow-playing members? On the other hand, the operator of a daily fee course, whose facility is much in vogue, is missing the boat if he doesn’t invest in some form of punitive approach. The same applies for publicly owned courses, although the potential for litigation prompted by golfers barred from courses they own might prompt yet another Gold Rush – into law schools.

In any event, there is much to be said for the penal approach.

3. Education: An entire generation of golfers has been raised who think of the four-hour four-ball as eminently desirable but unattainable. They are to be awakened, perhaps by the readers of this magazine. Perhaps a golfing Marx will emerge: “Golfers of America unite; you have nothing to lose but your sloth.” There are tips, devices, literature, signs, all sorts of paraphernalia, available to operators of courses and golf committees, who have the will to expedite the game. The latest of these is a 16mm film, consecrated by the USGA (with the tab picked up by Purolator and United Airlines), known as “Move Along – Enjoy Golf.” It runs 28 minutes and is available either from the USGA Film Library or from agencies designated by Purolator and United. The film stars Amy Alcott and Arnold Palmer. It just might do some good. The last word on the subject is spoken by Arnold Palmer, in describing the five-hour round. The word is “obscenity.”

Frank Hannigan was executive director of the USGA from 1983 to 1989. This article originally appeared in the May 1976 issue of Golf Journal.

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