News & Opinion

Golf's stealth weapon causes slow burn

Rory McIlroy’s first really good shot at winning a major championship occurred at the 2011 Masters, where he carried a four-stroke lead into the final round. By the time he reached the 10th tee and hooked his drive so violently that it nearly busted a window on Butler Cabin, the 21-year-old McIlroy had completely lost control of the wheel.

Prodigy meets tragedy. Youth meets truth. What few people could have noticed was that McIlroy and Angel Cabrera played together in Sunday’s final pairing, meaning two of the game’s speediest golfers were stuck in the caboose on a train full of deliberate, ultra-analytical tour pros who need at least 4½ hours to play 18 holes.

It’s certainly not the only reason McIlroy signed for 80, but when a kid spends 45 minutes on the front nine waiting to hit a shot, the demons have more than enough time to infiltrate his skull. It also raises the question, however hypothetical: Can slow play be used as a competitive weapon? The subject was broached at the 1999 Ryder Cup by members of the U.S. squad, who complained about the Europeans remaining on greens after holes were completed, to work on their putting.

Such loitering soon was outlawed. It’s the Americans who haven’t been the same since.

J.B. Holmes
J.B. Holmes strikes a familiar pose.

A veteran player told me that he thought Tiger Woods slowed the pace in his final-round duel with Chris DiMarco at the 2005 Masters, though it should be noted that both men had to play the entire back nine of the third round that Sunday morning before going off together in the afternoon. Was Woods trying to get in DiMarco’s head or conserving energy?

This brings up another point/misconception. It’s not those few extra waggles over the ball that leads to slow play, but the unwillingness to prepare for a shot until it’s your turn to hit. And because TV shows only the pre-shot behavior of those atop the leaderboard on the weekend, we tend to make generalizations as to who takes too long and who doesn’t.

If I were a doctor, I’d refer to this as the J.B. Holmes Syndrome. Woods obviously gets far more TV time than anyone. There are those who think he is on the wrong side of deliberate, which comes with the territory of getting tons of air and generating up to 50 percent of the viewing audience.

Let’s face it. If you’re finishing T-57 every week, you’re not slow.
You’re invisible. “Dustin Johnson, Tiger, [Jordan] Spieth,” a veteran caddie said when I asked him to identify a few slowpokes. “Tiger never catches heat for walking around his putts for three minutes.”

While watching the WGC event in China last fall, I was dumbfounded by the ridiculous pace of Patrick Reed, who almost seemed to be baiting tournament officials into issuing him a warning or slapping a couple of extra pops on his scorecard. Reed spent that Saturday with Justin Rose and Tony Finau, a threesome that took an outrageous 5 hours and 25 minutes to complete play.

The guys in the booth addressed the length of the round with a measure of disgust near the end of the telecast. Three months later, NBC on-course analyst Roger Maltbie, who never says a bad thing about anybody, made a point of mentioning how much dillydallying Reed does before finally settling over the ball.

If Maltbie’s calling you out, you need to see a therapist. And
quickly, one might add.

Without any actual data to validate the premise, European players, especially those from the United Kingdom, seem to play faster than American tour pros. There are obvious exceptions (Nick Faldo, Jesper Parnevik), of course, but those in the know might tell you that our lads are instructed by their high school/college coaches not to hit a shot until they’re good and ready.

Then again, you can be ready and still be good. Having played a fair amount of golf overseas, I can vouch for the notion that kids from the U.K. learn the game more by feel, owing to unpredictable weather conditions and a pervasive culture that values pace of play as much as a decent score. We tend to talk a big game but take our sweet time finishing one.

Nobody dumps more sugar on the issue than the PGA Tour, which continues to ignore the slow-play quandary by saying there is no such problem at the game’s highest level. There’s a certain amount of haughtiness in that position, which I’ve come to expect from Camp Ponte Vedra, but until a significant number of top-tier players unite to voice their collective displeasure over the terms of the competition, there will be no two-stroke penalties.

There will be no enforcement of the actual pace-of-play policy, and when J.B. Holmes finds himself in the hunt, which happens once or twice a year, you can tell your better half to leave supper in the oven for another 20 minutes.

A little bit of heat can change almost anything.

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: johnhawkinsgolf@gmail.com