Major League Baseball has a serious pace-of-play issue. So does the NFL, which learned a couple of years ago that its product no longer qualifies as must-see TV. And whether you’re talking NBA or college basketball, the final three minutes of any close game can take an eternity, better known in this day and age as a half-hour.
Time is not on our side, especially in pro golf. The final threesome in the third round of the recent WGC event in China needed 5½ hours to play 18 holes. Seven groups failed to complete the opening round before darkness at last week’s PGA Tour gathering in Nevada.
What happens in Vegas is supposed to stay in Vegas, but slow play has a nasty habit of going everywhere. Commissioners love to talk about speeding up the sports over which they preside, but golf isn’t keen on acknowledging the matter, which leaves us with a bunch of rich guys who get fined only after repeated offenses and don’t view those losses as a reason to change their habitual behavior.
“You’re preaching to the choir,” longtime PGA Tour official Slugger White told me. “The biggest problem is the quickness of the greens. When I first got out here, they would roll at 9 or maybe 9½ on the Stimpmeter. Now, they start the week at 10½ and get to 12 or higher on the weekend. Nobody putts out anymore. They mark their ball because they don’t want to get careless.”
It’s funny how fast greens lead to slow golf. And now that daylight saving time has abandoned us for the next four months, the issues become more significant. The Tour reduced field sizes from 144 to 132 during the cold-weather months so it could finish every round on the same day it started. It didn’t work in Vegas, however, and it’s not uncommon to have darkness-related suspensions during the West Coast Swing, particularly in Los Angeles.
Why not cut the fields even more, you ask? Because that would further deprive playing opportunities for the golfers who need them most. The fringe guys with partial status, many of whom earned their conditional ticket to the big leagues through the Web.com Tour, already have a hard-enough time getting into tournaments during the so-called regular season.
The fall events offer those players a chance to make some money and improve their status, which leads us to the subject of tour eligibility. Does a guy who was fully exempt but finished 142nd on last year’s money list deserve anything from the system? Why should he be given any privileges when he failed to perform to a reasonable standard during the previous season?
“Playing well solves all your problems,” a decorated Tour pro told me more than once. “And if you don’t play well, you’ve got nobody but yourself to blame. In this business, you’ve got no business expecting a handout.”
Unlike other sports leagues, however, the PGA Tour’s primary mission is to accommodate its membership. Competitive equilibrium is obviously a priority, but the longer I’ve written about this game, the more I realize the infrastructure of pro golf caters to the middle-class player and those below him. It’s a star-driven enterprise that really wasn’t built for the stars.
So, cutting down the fields might make sense, but it’s very unlikely to happen, and besides, there are better solutions. Make everybody play faster. Enforce the slow-play mandate and force accountability among those in violation of it. Get rid of the fines and start hitting these guys with strokes, and if the slowpokes still don’t get it, put them on the bottom of the tee sheet on a regular basis.
A procession of mid-afternoon starting times will send the right message. “I feel like I’m on an island with this, but I just don’t feel like a stopwatch should cost somebody a spot in the top 125 [on the season-ending points list] or the top 30,” White said. “A one-shot penalty could cost somebody $125,000, and I’m just not on that page.”
White is way too nice of a guy to be reaching into a touring pro’s pocket, so let him handle the actual Rules of Golf and then hire a couple of Dobermans to dole out the penalty strokes. Slow play has been dogging pro golf forever. It’s high time that we make it yesterday’s news.
John Hawkins is a longtime sportswriter who spent 14 years covering the PGA Tour for Golf World magazine. From 2007 to 2011, he was a regular on Golf Channel’s “Grey Goose 19th Hole.” Email: firstname.lastname@example.org