Keeping Score

Golf should take a hint from baseball

For those wheeling into the sprawling grounds of PGA National in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., an interesting juxtaposition immediately presents itself.

The home to the popular Honda Classic is situated just a few hundred yards from Florida’s Turnpike, a generally wide-open expanse of toll-road pavement that allows lead-footed motorists to drive as fast as they dare.

As for the green grass of the PGA Tour itself, well, it remains a case of life in the slow lane. Forget the gas pedal. On this tour, the brake pads are as metaphorically worn out as the game’s slow-play issue itself.

For added irony, the Honda Classic venue is located a couple of miles from the spring-training home of the St. Louis Cardinals and Miami Marlins of Major League Baseball, which on Feb. 19 announced a series of rule changes designed to speed up the pace of play beginning this season.

If only the PGA Tour cared to listen.

“For the good of the game, we need to play this game in about 3½ hours on a daily basis," Hall of Famer Jack Nicklaus said before the recent Honda Classic. “All other sports on television and all other sports are played in three hours – usually three hours or less – except for a five-set tennis match.”

Mindful that games had become too choked with timeouts and play stoppages, the National Basketball Association changed its rules in 2017-18 to eliminate much of the tediousness associated with the final minutes of play. In addition to other changes, teams are limited to two timeouts over the final three minutes, down from three.

MLB announced last week that it will limit the number of visits to the mound by coaches and players, and shave the time between innings. Since 2005, the average length of an MLB game ballooned by 22 minutes, to 3:08 in 2017.

Yawn.

Flatly stated, the PGA Tour doesn’t care if golf can be timed with a sundial. Players are being stranded on the course because of slow play and darkness. While the NBA and MLB have taken steps to trim the tedium, the PGA Tour mostly dawdles, and amateurs seemingly follow suit.

“The growth of the game of golf, it's not going to grow with the young kids,” Nicklaus said. “Young kids don't have five hours to play golf. Young kids want instant gratification.”

This isn’t a grumpy, get-off-my lawn pronouncement from a 78-year-old Nicklaus. He knows millennials. Of his 22 grandchildren, only one plays golf seriously.

Trivia note: In his career on the PGA and Champions tours, Nicklaus was assessed penalty strokes for slow play exactly twice. He was hardly a speed demon in his day, but his eyebrows shot up when it was noted that his two penalties represented double the amount of any player in the Honda Classic field.

“Really?” he said.

Truly. Last spring at the new team event in New Orleans, the Brian Campbell-Miguel Angel Carballo pairing was assessed a one-shot penalty for slow play. Incredibly, it ended a string of 22 years since a PGA Tour player had been docked a shot for such an offense.

Fully aware that fan attention spans are shrinking, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred reportedly wanted to install pitch-countdown timers, which already are used in classes AA and AAA, but received pushback from the players’ union.

There is no players’ union in golf to appease, which means the global tours can act. The European Tour is pushing the pace with the establishment of the Shot Clock Masters, to be staged in Austria in June. Clocks will be posted all over the course, and players failing to hit the ball before the clock reads triple zeroes will be assessed a penalty stroke. The European Tour had shot clocks mounted in golf carts trailing groups at the inaugural GolfSixes event in 2017, too, which resulted in a slow-play penalty being assessed … to an American, Paul Peterson. Figures, right?

"Not only will it help us combat slow play and reduce round times, it is also further evidence of our desire to embrace innovation," said Keith Pelley, the European Tour’s CEO, who hopes to trim playing times to four hours for threesomes and 3:15 for twosomes.

The LPGA has zapped several players over the years, too, including stars such as Morgan Pressel, who drew a momentum-shifting slow-play penalty in the semifinals of a match-play event in 2012 that eventually resulted in a loss after she was forced to forfeit the 12th hole. Since the start of the 2014 season, the LPGA said it has assessed nine two-shot penalties and levied 57 fines for slow play.

On the PGA Tour, though, a plodding pace essentially is sanctioned with a nod and a wink, and everybody knows it. Information is available only in piecemeal fashion, even to players. For example, each PGA Tour player’s average time-of-completion number is posted in the data on his ShotLink statistical-performance page. Trouble is, players can access only their own times, which means context and comparisons to others is lost.

The Tour has been pressed over the years to post the entire list publicly, but has declined. Whether public shaming would work is a matter of debate, too. Brandt Snedeker, a former Ryder Cup player and one of the Tour’s quickest players, said that when he played on the developmental circuit, the average playing times for players routinely were posted for all to see.

“It didn’t make any difference, really,” Snedeker said, shrugging.

So much for peer pressure, right?

Even player outcry is uneven. When J.B. Holmes took more than four minutes to hit a shot on the 72nd hole at Torrey Pines last month (“Keeping score,” Jan. 29), he was dressed down on social media by peers, including former world No. 1 Luke Donald. Then again, former PGA champion Jimmy Walker defended Holmes’ unendurably long decision-making process, because first place was on the line. One man’s snail is another’s escargot.

On the PGA Tour, the only thing that happens quickly is that fans forget and complaints don’t linger long. Top players know it. Of his well-earned reputation on the course as a car stuck in first gear, if not neutral, former world No. 1 Jason Day once said: “I don’t care what people say.”

Though social media erupted as Holmes took forever and a day to decide to lay up at Torrey Pines, the Tour shrugged and looked away, not even offering a comment. It represents not-so-benign neglect that, at some point, is destined to affect TV ratings and overall interest in the game. If rounds played during the past decade are any indication, it already has.

Rounds took as long as 5:20 during the Tour’s recent Genesis Open at smallish Riviera Country Club, a par-71 track where the distance between greens and tee boxes usually can be measured in a few steps. During the first two rounds, play was suspended with several groups still on the course. In what might be characterized as an unintended consequence of slow play, if not a form of punishment in itself, tournament host Tiger Woods reportedly wants the Riviera field trimmed from 144 to 120, which means lower-tier players would miss a big-money tournament.

“If people start to lose starts, that might get some attention,” Snedeker said.

The PGA Tour’s toothless slow-play procedures are mostly to blame. Players are supposed to hit shots within a 40-second framework when it’s their turn, and they get one freebie bad time. A second bad time is supposed to result in a penalty, but only if a Tour official is still nearby, with stopwatch in hand. Too many players game the system by hustling only when they are being timed.

“It’s like pulling somebody over for speeding, giving them a warning, then following them for a couple of miles before letting them go,” Snedeker said, laughing. “Good analogy, right?”

Spot on. Except that this is the opposite of speeding, and unlike the nearby turnpike, the ultimate toll can’t be immediately tallied.

Steve Elling has covered golf for the Orlando Sentinel, CBSSports.com and numerous other global print and online outlets. Email: ellingink@gmail.com; Twitter: @EllingYelling


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