News & Opinion

It’s about time: Shot clock debuts in Europe

Phil Mickelson calls Patrick Cantlay the silent assassin and says he's talented enough to be a member of the U.S. Ryder Cup team this fall. Cantlay is one of the game’s rising stars, but he takes so long to play a shot that you wonder whether it will be nightfall before he does so. On one shot during the recent Memorial Tournament, Cantlay looked at the hole 13 times before pulling the trigger. As CBS lead analyst Nick Faldo put it during the Sunday broadcast, “You've got time to make a coffee or double espresso while he’s over the ball.”

Cantlay, who played alongside eventual winner Bryson DeChambeau and Kyle Stanley, both notorious dawdlers, in the final round at Muirfield Village, was notified on the 13th hole that his group was on the clock. Nevertheless, on 17, he took at least double the allotted time to play his second shot from a fairway bunker. He may have been fined – the PGA Tour doesn't acknowledge such violations publicly – but he didn't get penalized a stroke for slow play. No surprise, given that only one penalty has been handed out in the past 23 years. (Miguel Angel Carballo and Brian Campbell were the lone offenders, docked one shot at the 2017 Zurich Classic of New Orleans, a team event.)

“There's always been policies put in place to speed up play, but nothing ever has been enforced,” PGA Tour veteran Rory Sabbatini said.

It’s a good thing that Cantlay and many of his fellow slowpokes on Tour aren’t playing in this week’s Shot Clock Masters in Atzenbrugg, Austria, on the European Tour (tee times). They wouldn’t stand a chance. 

The Shot Clock Masters marks the first tournament in professional golf to use a shot clock on every stroke, with the intent of showcasing golf played at a more compelling pace. The goal is to shave 45 minutes off the typical pace of play. Each player in the 120-man field, if he is the first to play, will have 50 seconds to hit any given shot (tee shot, approach, chip or putt), with each succeeding player in the group allowed 40 seconds to play his shot. Players will incur a one-stroke penalty for each bad time incurred, and any infractions will be shown as a red card against their names on the leaderboard. This type of public flogging is necessary and has the potential to be an effective deterrent to slow play.

“I’m looking forward to seeing how this much anticipated concept will work out," European Ryder Cup captain Thomas Bjorn tweeted on Monday. "Slow play is a disease in our sport and this format should help." 

Kudos to Keith Pelley, the European Tour’s chief executive officer, for addressing golf's slow play. Across the Atlantic, PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan continues to keep his head in the sand, much like his predecessor, Tim Finchem. Pace of play is among the biggest issues plaguing the game. Many recreational players imitate the pros, stalking putts, agonizing over club selection and more recently analyzing green books. But Pelley isn't looking for any credit. He's just implementing the wishes of his membership. 

“If I've heard it once, I've heard it a thousand times,” Pelley said. “Players have two speeds: when the referees show up and when they don't.”

So, Pelley canvassed his players with a simple two-question survey. First question: Do you think slow play is a problem on the European Tour?

"If you answered ‘no,’ the survey was over," Pelley said. "But if you answered ‘yes,’ you got one more question."

Do you want the European Tour to act seriously on curbing this challenge?

Within two days, 70 percent of the membership had responded in favor of taking action.

"We need to try and modernize our game," Pelley said. "The millennials have an attention span of 12 seconds. The Gen Z have an attention span of eight seconds. We're living in a society that is completely different, and I think every game and every sport and every business is looking to modernize themselves, and if you don't, then you run the risk of falling behind."

"I think it's brilliant," said Ross Fisher, who was penalized for slow play during the final round of the 2012 ISPS Handa Wales Open. "Whether the slow players will play or not is another thing."   

The European Tour tested a shot clock on one hole at the inaugural GolfSixes in 2017, and this is the next step in its experiment to curb slow play. But not everyone thinks a shot clock is the answer.

"It's completely against the spirit of golf," Geoff Ogilvy said. "You may need 5 more seconds to get the wind right. A shot clock doesn't take anything into consideration except how long you're taking. If the wind switches, you're going to take another club out. To penalize someone for that is absurd." 

To the European Tour's credit, it has attempted to address such special situations, granting each player the right to call two timeouts per round to double his allotted time. 

Ogilvy and other pros, including Graeme McDowell, who oppose the idea of a shot clock still agree that slow play is a problem that needs to be addressed and would like to see players punished for taking too long.

“Every single guy on Tour goes home in a four-ball, shoots 65 in three hours. But they come out here and take two more hours. Why is that?” Ogilvy said. “It's the same game, same ball, same club. Sure, there are a few more distractions; add 45 minutes. We need to call guys out to play faster. It's what happens in Japan. They play in 3:45 because nobody wants to be the one to let anyone down. When they get on the clock, they literally run."

James Hahn suggested that the PGA Tour should do away with giving a warning every round; one warning per event and the next bad time should result in a one-stroke penalty.

"Warnings don't do anything," Hahn said. "It's like a speeding ticket. I caught you speeding. OK, I'm going to speed again. No big deal." 

One of the best solutions I've heard is to relegate the slow pokes to the last groups on Thursday and Friday, where they won't cause as big of a traffic jam. Again, shame and a potential disadvantage of playing on spiked-up greens and in windier conditions would incentivize speedier rounds.

"If every once in a while, someone got penalized strokes, then everybody would start saying, Holy cow, this could cost me a lot of money," Davis Love III said. "Penalty strokes are probably the answer. But it's kind of like the flat tax. It would be simple, but it ain't going to happen."

Maybe not, but experimenting with a shot clock is a step in the right direction. And we all can agree on one thing: It's about time.

Adam Schupak has written about golf since 1997 for the likes of Golfweek, Golf World and The New York Times. He is the author of Deane Beman: Golf's Driving Force. Email:; Twitter: @adamschupak