There is something worse in golf than a shank. It’s having to wait to hit the shank.
For all of golf’s frustrations – and there are times when we’d all like to whip that Scottish shepherd who first conjured up this game – there may be nothing more aggravating than having what should be a leisurely outing become a maddening marathon.
If you’ve ever stuck a tee in the ground, you’ve experienced it. All you want to do is play golf the way it was intended and, instead, you wind up spewing venom at the group in front of you.
It could be four missionaries up ahead taking a break from feeding the underprivileged, and they’re stuck on an overcrowded golf course just like you, but it has to be someone’s fault. So you blame them. Of course, they’re blaming the group in front of them. Soon, everyone’s miserable. Nothing can suck the fun out of a round of golf like spending 5½ hours on the course.
“If five-hour rounds were the standard, I’d give up the game. It would drive me crazy,” says Buzz Taylor. That from the president of the United States Golf Association.
With all the talk about how technology is changing the game, the relatively simple idea of moving golfers around a course in a reasonable length of time continues to be a confounding problem in many places. Unfortunately, there may be no simple solutions.
“I wish I had a solution,” says David Fay, executive director of the USGA. “If I had one, maybe I’d be nominated for one of those awards they give in Oslo.”
If he could conjure up the four-hour round – or faster – from most golfers’ perspective, he’d be due for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Most of us aren't fortunate enough to be members of exclusive clubs where tee times aren’t necessary and you sometimes feel as lonesome on the golf course as the early settlers must've felt on the Great Plains.
For the majority of golfers, the pure pleasure of playing golf is often tempered by the pace of play. Think about how good it feels to be on an uncrowded course. Just you and your partners looking at wide open spaces in front of you. Think about having an open hole in front of you. It makes that bogey a little easier to take. At least you don’t have to stand on the tee stewing about it for five minutes while the group ahead of you fans out in the right rough looking for a ball.
It’s a wonderful feeling to be on a course where play moves as steadily as time. Too often, though, golf stands still while time marches on.
“Everyone gets annoyed when they’re held up out there,” Fay says. Consequently, the game suffers.
Avid golfers get cranky about slow play and new golfers get turned off to the game. Golf continues to enjoy a nice growth spurt, but throw in a 5½-hour round into an equation that increasingly includes a three-figure green fee, and it doesn’t take a degree in logic to figure out we’re headed for trouble.
Like any problem, before it can be solved, it first must be understood. Assigning the blame for slow play is, in general, an inexact science. It’s easy, however, to identify the major culprits in the pace-of-play problem.
In many cases, golf courses bunch too many groups too close together, making it virtually impossible for play to flow smoothly. Courses, for the most part, are in the business of making money, and the more players they squeeze on, the more money they make. At least, that’s the theory.
Then, there's the influence of the PGA Tour. We dress like the pros. We buy the same clubs they claim to play. Naturally, we’re going to try to play like them. Maybe if we line up every putt from both sides of the hole, triangulate our yardage among three sprinkler heads, and go through a pre-shot routine that rivals the countdown sequence of a space shuttle launch we’ll start hitting it like they do. And maybe it’ll be dark before we make the turn.
Sometimes, though, it can’t help but take a long time to play. Don’t you love it when you play an old course where the greens are located in the same area code as the next tee?
Too many new courses are built with no thought of moving players around without an overnight stay at the turn. The important thing, it seems, is fitting enough housing lots into the layout to make the developers’ bank accounts look greener than anything on the actual course.
That often means walking is not an option and finishing in anything dose to four hours is impossible. It’s not unusual on some new courses for the time required to ride between holes to add 20 or more minutes to a round.
And let’s not forget what we’ll call the human factor. New players don’t know the etiquette of the game and, consequently, play bogs down around them. They also tend to hit it more often than average players and, therefore, it takes them longer to play.
Then there’s the entitlement mentality. They paid their money. It’s their afternoon off. They’re going to take their own sweet time on the golf course, and no surprise, they’re the ones with the cellphone in the cart.
Golf House, we’ve found a problem. Solving it may be an even bigger task.
“I don’t think we should call it slow play,” says Bill Yates of Rolling Hills Estates, Calif., who has made a business of evaluating pace of play problems at courses around the country. “That automatically blames the player.”
Yates helped Dean Knuth of the USGA develop the Pace Rating System, by which any golf course can have its pace of play established. He’s not saying Bernhard Langer and others can’t be slower than a bad opera, but Yates believes golfers too often are blamed for a problem that’s not their fault.
“If you want to improve the pace of play, you need to manage golf courses differently,” says Yates, an industrial engineer who spent 20 years working with companies to improve their processes. He’s streamlined assembly lines, but fixing the bottleneck on a reachable par 5 is a different matter.
In his detailed studies of more than 40 courses with pace-of-play problems, Yates has found several common themes. The most glaring problem is trying to put too many players on the course and not doing an effective job of handling the players who are out there. Course rangers can’t speed play along if there’s nowhere to go.
“It’s the freeway syndrome,” Yates says. “If you’re driving along the interstate at five in the afternoon, it’s like which car are you going to yell at? It’s not good enough to get people on the golf course. You have to keep them going.”
In other words, what good are seven-minute tee times if all that gets you is a two-group backup on the second tee?
“There are only so many players a golf course can hold,” Yates says. “If you could get all the horses on the merry-go-round to go faster, it would be different. But that’s not likely to happen.”
Several of Yates’ findings and suggestions fly in the face of conventional wisdom; which means it scares the yips out of most golf-course operators when they first hear them. Sometimes, it means starting six groups an hour rather than eight. Golf-course operators see money flying out of the cash register. Instead, it actually gets players on the course at their assigned times, eliminating big backups that throw off tee times all day, and makes the experience better for everyone.
Yates also discovered one of the biggest causes of slow play is letting groups tee off before their assigned times. It leads directly to overcrowding and the three or four minutes gained on the first tee are lost many times over later in the round.
“Letting people out early is the worst thing you can do,” Yates says. “You get too many people out there.”
Other factors come into play.
If the worst words in golf used to be “You’re still away.” Today they are “Carts on paths only.”
Many resorts require carts, and many new courses make it nearly impossible for golfers to walk. Carts restricted to paths immediately make it a significantly longer day. A USGA study showed that walking is faster than riding if carts must be kept on paths.
The drive time from some greens to tees is one of the hidden culprits in the pace-of-play battle. On architect Desmond Muirhead’s Bridgemill golf course near Woodstock, Ga., golfers had to travel 4,340 yards between greens and tees. That added 28 minutes to their rounds.
By reworking some paths, Muirhead was able to slice seven minutes off the time needed to get around.
Even Yates, who believes processes and operations are the biggest contributors to slow play, admits golfers must accept some of the blame.
“If you give them the chance, they’ll play slowly,” Yates says. “They’re following the lead of the pros.”
Fay believes the problem worsened after World War II, when many of the game’s best players developed a slower pace. Fay remembers hearing the tale of Ben Hogan greeting administrator Joe Dey on the first tee prior to a round in a major championship with this icy message: “I’m not changing my pace. If you’re going to give me two shots, give them to me now.”
The Tour has worked to move play along, establishing a time “par” at every event, allowing players to know how long it should take them to play. If they fall out of position, they are warned. The third warning earns them a fine. Continual problems earn two-stroke penalties, though those are rarely imposed.
“For the number of players we have playing and the difficulty of the golf courses, I think we do pretty well,” says PGA Tour Rules official Mark Russell, who monitors pace of play.
“We have seven to 10 slow players out here out of 156. We know who they are and they know who they are.”
The pros tend to move quickly from tee to green. They rarely have to spend much time looking for golf halls and generally avoid long delays dealing with hazards. However, they establish a model with their constant checking of yardages and strict adherence to their pre-shot routines.
“ Too many sports psychologists are inculcating procedure and process into playing the game that is the opposite of speeding up play,” says Taylor. “It’s not right.”
These days, everyone has to know his yardage on every shot. Golf becomes a math class and play grinds to a crawl.
“The average player is a 17 handicap. I don’t think they’re consistent enough that they need to know their yardage,” Fay says.
It’s fine to glance over at a 150-yard marker to get your bearings. But with everyone spending 45 seconds looking for a sprinkler head then stepping off the yardage to their ball before factoring in the hole location, time starts piling up.
Then there’s the issue of college golf. It has become a breeding ground for slow play.
“College coaches – and we’ve spoken to them about this – need to recognize we have a serious problem,” Taylor says.
Taylor and Fay both qualify their concerns about slow play by admitting that USGA-run events don’t set the standard for getting golfers around a course. Fay said golfers have 40 seconds in which to play a shot in USGA competitions and suggests if a group falls out of position, the allowable time per stroke should be reduced to 25 seconds until they’re back in position.
“We have to have stroke [penalties],” Taylor says. “We don’t use that enough. We need to.”
The pace of play problem has been largely limited to American golf. Resorts have been the worst offenders, charging high green fees then letting their guests roast in a slow cooker.
In recent years, though, pace of play problems have begun to surface in the motherland. In Scotland and Ireland, where golf carts are virtually nonexistent, the days of the three-hour round have become endangered.
A recent amateur tournament played on the Old Course at St. Andrews saw some groups taking 5½ hours to complete play. High winds made playing conditions miser-able, but it’s not as easy to zip around a links course as it once was.
“It’s becoming a problem here as it is in the U.S.,” says Michael Bonallack, secretary of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club in St. Andrews.
“It’s been building over the years. People see the pros on television, and they all imagine knowing the yardages will be as much a benefit to them as it is to the pros. So they do take more time.”
It’s true there’s less emphasis on stroke play and more on match play in Great Britain but there’s been a trend toward stroke play there in recent years. That adds to the time it takes to get around.
One thing Irish and Scottish courses have going for them, though – the lousy weather.
“You don’t want to hang around outside so you play quickly,” Bonallack says.
For all the doom and gloom talk, there is hope. Some places – even Pebble Beach, which had one of the worst reputations for slow play anywhere – have found ways to speed up play without compromising the enjoyment of an afternoon on the links.
From a golfer’s perspective, the first – and critical step – is awareness. Players must learn to be ready to play when it’s their turn – and sometimes when it’s not.
How many times have you been in a foursome that was forced to wait before playing the next shots only to find one or two players hadn’t selected a club when it was their turn?
The concept of “ready golf” helps move the game around. In the truest sense, that means following the Rules and allowing the player farthest from the hole to play first. But it means being ready to play when you’re away.
“That’s what I call ready golf,” Bonallack says.
In a friendly foursome, though, there’s nothing wrong with playing when you’re ready, even if you’re not away, as long as it’s agreed upon in advance and doesn’t negatively affect anyone else in the group.
Both Taylor and Fay, two of the strongest figures in the game, endorse the concept in many cases.
“Hit when ready,” Taylor says. “We do it a lot.”
“It’s good as long as it doesn’t give someone an advantage,” Fay says.
Fay also advocates reconsidering the idea of continuous putting. It was used for a short period of time in the 1960s but never became a rule.
The continuous putting rule allows a player to mark his ball on the green once unless it’s in someone else's line. No lagging a 25-footer three feet short, marking your ball, letting someone else putt then putting your ball back in play. You keep putting until you’re finished.
There’s a saying in Scottish golf that you shouldn’t worry about the group behind you. Instead, you should be concerned with keeping up with the group playing in front of you.
At Pine Meadow Golf Club in Mundelein, Ill., pace of play is emphasized. Quick players are rewarded and slow players are encouraged to move along and, if they don't, they’re eventually penalized. The effect has been a golf course that has the reputation for getting players around in approximately four hours.
They start weekend mornings with tee times seven minutes apart and, as the day wears on, spread them to 10-minute intervals.
Groups that play early and keep pace get what are called permanent tee times. That means they can keep their Saturday or Sunday tee times as long as they continue to show up and keep up.
“We ask groups to try to stay one shot behind the group in front of them. That’s the way it was when they teed off. We want to keep that interval," says Ted Solokis, Pine Meadow’s general manager.
Rangers advise players on this public course which sets of tees best fit their game and nudge them along when play drags. Scorecards have pace-of-play guidelines, and the golf shop posts how long it takes each group to play on the weekends.
If groups fall more than a hole behind, they’re sometimes asked to skip a hole to catch up. When they finish, if the hole they skipped is open, they may go back and play it.
The feedback on the program, Solokis said, has been overwhelmingly positive.
At Pebble Beach, pace of play has been a sore subject for years. It seemed that everyone who played there came away complaining about the high green fees and six-hour rounds.
The green fees aren’t any lower, but the time it takes to play is changing.
“So many people have heard horror stories about Pebble Beach,” says head pro Chris Pryor. “But we average below five hours now and that's pretty good for a resort.”
Pebble Beach is a different animal. It’s so famous and so picturesque that almost everyone makes a camera their 15th club. They pose on the first tee, on the seventh tee, in the eighth fairway, somewhere along the ocean at Nos. 9 and 10, at the par-three 17th, and, of course, a couple of places on the 18th hole.
It's also a very difficult course to play. To get golfers around Pebble Beach faster, a fourth set of tees has been built that will keep many players who don’t belong there off the back tees. The starter hands groups off to a new tee captain, who advises players which tees to use and tells them where marshals are located on the course.
Golfers are told what’s expected of them in terms of pace and how they’re expected to achieve that.
“The last thing we want to do is rush them through their round,” Pryor says.
To help get golfers around, there are usually three rangers on the course who take an interactive approach. They serve as forecaddies in tough spots, like the bluff in the eighth fairway where golfers can’t see their tee shots land. If a group has trouble keeping up, Pebble Beach will offer the services of a forecaddie at the resort’s expense.
“It’s critical we have an enjoyable pace of play,” Pryor says. “That’s my main goal. Four hours here is not realistic. But 4:30 to 4:45 at Pebble Beach is an ideal pace.” If it can be done at Pebble Beach, it can done anywhere.
Pace of play, though, is not a problem that is likely to go away anytime soon.
“I bet you could take a flight to Mars and come back in three or four years,” Fay says. “And people would still be talking about this.”
This article was originally published in the September 1999 issue of Golf Magazine.