News & Opinion

Slow vs. flow: The quest for faster play

About 20 years ago, Bill Yates was invited to make a presentation on pace of play at a golf business conference in Barrie, Ontario. When he saw the reaction from the audience of golf-course operators to his then-revolutionary suggestions, he thought, Hey, maybe I can make a living doing this.

He was right.

But his message still might surprise most golfers and course operators who think they understand what causes “slow play.” 

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Bill Yates

Bill Yates

While concepts such as ready golf, continuous putting, playing from tees appropriate to skill level and so on remain important, they are secondary to Yates’ proven theory of how to make a round of golf more enjoyable, from a pace-of-play standpoint.

Years ago, Yates approached one of golf’s most insidious problems with a fresh perspective, based on his experience as a process engineer working with a variety of industries. 

“My job was to improve efficiencies in how they produced their product, whatever that might be,” he said. “In most cases, 90 percent of the responsibility was on management to improve how they did business. If an employee wasn’t performing, it generally wasn’t their fault. Did they need more training? Did they have the right tools? Were the production methods the right ones?

“And make no mistake about it: Golf produces a product, and that product is the player’s experience when they are at a course.”

When it came to golf, Yates saw the same scenario, so “I started out with the theory that slow play isn’t all – or even primarily – the players’ fault. Slow play is really a traffic issue, which is the responsibility of course managers. 

“Players are not the biggest reason for slow play on our courses, any more than slow drivers, for example, are the reason that gridlocked freeways are slow.” 

In other words, if there are too many cars pouring onto a highway with too few lanes, traffic jams are inevitable. The problem isn’t really slow play; it is that golfers hate to have to wait on every shot. Stop and go. Hurry up and wait. Bottlenecks. A 4½-hour round feels like six.

Yates’ California-based company, Pace Manager Systems (www.pacemanager.com), was founded on what he calls the Five Key Factors That Impact The Pace of Play: Management policies and practices, player behavior, player ability, course maintenance and setup, and course design. (On the latter point, the American Society of Golf Course Architects recently published its Pace of Play Checklist (http://bit.ly/2z0tuYZ), created by ASGCA member Forrest Richardson. 

Yates has helped hundreds of public, private, municipal and resort courses around the world lower their round times and improve customer value and revenue. He has been interviewed by most major golf publications, and he has been a keynote presenter at golf conferences throughout the U.S. and Europe. He has consulted with the courses at St. Andrews and has assisted the R&A in managing pace of play for the British Open and British Amateur and collaborated with the U.S. Golf Association in studying pace at the U.S. Open and the U.S. Women’s Open. 

The “three myths” Yates has to persuade potential clients to disbelieve are:

  • it’s all the players’ fault;
  • rounds should take four hours;
  • improving pace of play will hurt the bottom line.

It’s been an uphill battle.
In 2013, Yates brought his innovative concepts to the USGA. Finally, after years as a virtual voice in the wilderness, he earned a formidable ally. Spearheaded by Hunki Yun, the director of strategic projects, and technical director Matthew Pringle, the USGA has brought an impressive commitment to understanding pace of play. Echoing Yates’ counterintuitive theories, their research findings put much of the onus on course operators.

Building on his traffic-jam analogy, Yates came up with the phrase “slow versus flow.” 

Pringle elaborates: “One of the biggest misconceptions is that slow play is the fault of the group in front of you. That may be the case at times, but it is more likely that the golf course is set up to fail. It can’t flow properly, so you will end up waiting at some point. The operator has to balance flow onto and through the course. There are structural reasons why delays occur.”

Let’s look at a hypothetical situation in which an easy par 4 is followed by a difficult par 3. Golfers finish the par 4 too fast, and a bottleneck occurs on the par-3 tee. If the course operator intentionally slowed play on that par 4, perhaps by lengthening it or growing in more rough, the overall round would be more enjoyable for everyone. 

This does not, of course, excuse golfers themselves from doing everything to ensure a smooth flow. Yates is clear that pace of play remains a shared responsibility. If the operator has done all that he can (the first of Yates’ five factors), it is much easier to identify and deal with problem groups. 

Finally, you’ve got someone other than the group in front to blame.

You’re welcome.

John Gordon, who has covered golf for more than 30 years for Canadian newspapers, magazines and a TV network, has authored eight books on the game. He lives in Midland, Ontario. Email:  gordongolf@outlook.com;  Twitter: @gordongolf