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Seeing red over use of green books

How much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood? We all heard the riddle as kids

How much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood? We all heard the riddle as kids. But in the world of golf, the riddle is posed as a slightly different question these days. It worries less about how much the critter might chuck, and more about how long it would take.

Pace of play is the hot button right now in golf, as it has been in baseball, football and weight loss. The topic blew up at the PGA Tour’s Northern Trust earlier this month when Bryson DeChambeau needed roughly the gestation period of an African elephant (almost two years) to hit an 8-foot putt.

Bryson DeChambeau consulting his green book
Bryson DeChambeau, consulting his green book earlier this season, has personified the slow-play debate.

Social media being what it is, a video of DeChambeau’s process went viral, and the response went vitriol. A few well-known players fired from the cellular hip, which of course created more social media. DeChamb-slow eventually owned it, but his initial pushback was awkward, suggesting caddies were part of the problem.

That’s like a manager blaming the waiters for lousy service at his restaurant. Buddy, they work for you.

A few days later, green books were dragged into the discussion. The cheat sheets have come under criticism before, and limitations were placed on their contents at the beginning of the year. Still, many professional and amateur players rely on the pocketbooks as part of their pre-putt ritual.

Among those who have defended the green-reading pamphlets is Phil Mickelson, who said the books actually allow him to play faster and save time on preparation. He added that anyone who suggested otherwise was “idiotic.” The last part seemed a bit harsh. Merriam-Webster defines “idiotic” as being 1. characterized by idiocy or 2. showing a complete lack of thought or common sense.

But if you believe that it takes one to know one, Mickelson brings a level of authenticity to the table that demands respect. It was he who hit driver off the 72nd tee at Winged Foot with a one-shot lead in the ’06 U.S. Open, made double bogey and later observed, “I’m such an idiot.” You have to take the man at his word.

Maybe it does take a complete lack of thought or common sense to suggest the little books contribute to slow play. Doesn’t seem like it.

Regardless, Mickelson’s stance underlines a crucial aspect of the slow-play saga. That is, not all players are created equal, and one pace does not fit all. No doubt, Mickelson and others like him use the green books in a timely manner, or before they step into the batter’s box. But others do not. They wait until they reach the green, take a look at the putt and then pull out the reading material.

Some players, such as Dustin Johnson and Bill Haas, waste little time or energy. Others are nothing if not measured, such as DeChambeau and Jordan Spieth. Some players often are in contention, when they are more likely to be deliberate. Others are rarely in the hunt.

Bottom line: pace protestation did not begin with the 2019 Northern Trust. A 2017 Sports Illustrated poll of 50 PGA Tour players revealed that 84 percent thought slow play was a problem. Historically, some of the greats, including Jack Nicklaus, were pace-impaired at one point in their careers.

Nicklaus overcame it. “It’s all about being ready to play when it’s your turn,” Nicklaus told the Detroit Free Press. “And if you’re ready to play when it’s your turn, then you won’t be slow.”

True, that. But there also is a way to influence pace institutionally, to accommodate both the rabbits and the tortoises, to find a happy medium. Have rules and enforce them.

The PGA Tour has a policy in place to deal with slow play, just like the surgeon general has a warning on packs of cigarettes.

Punishment is doled out about as often as a northern hairy-nosed wombat is spotted. And when the penalty-stroke hammer comes down, it usually falls on the obscure and unaccomplished.

The team of Miguel Angel Carballo and Brian Campbell was popped a stroke at the 2017 Zurich Classic. The last time it happened in a conventional PGA Tour event was during the Clinton administration, or when Glen “All” Day was served a stroke at the 1995 Honda Classic. Lest we forget, 14-year-old Tianlang Guan was penalized for unpunctuality at the 2013 Masters. The Masters was first conducted in 1934 and, as best can be determined, it remains the first and only slow-play reprimand at Augusta National. Some might call that child abuse.

The current policy dictates that a group must complete its round within a specific time frame, with the 18 holes partitioned by minutes. If a group falls behind, it is deemed “out of position.” Players are to be warned, then put on the clock. If players continue to lag, they are to be informed that they have a bad time.

There is no fine for the first bad time, just double-secret probation.

A second bad time results in a $5,000 fine and a one-stroke penalty. A third bad time – which comes as often as the Apocalypse – results in a $10,000 fine and two-stroke penalty. There is no fine for being put on the clock until it happens for a 10th time. All of it, of course, is open to interpretation and discretion.

In today’s world, with the technology available, the term “out of position” seems archaic. Why isn’t every player on the clock from the time he tees off? Why so many warnings? Why are fine amounts so insignificant?

We’re not talking about a meaningless luxury tax here. Reputation is important to players, and perception is reality. If the PGA Tour has meaningful penalties in place, and enforces them, it won’t have to enforce them often. No player will want to walk inside the ropes wearing the scarlet letter of slow play.

If Bryson DeChambeau is a frustrating playing competitor, and painful to watch … if the use of green books is killing the clock … it’s only because the powers that be allow it.

Dan O’Neill, who covered golf for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch from 1989 to 2017, is an editorial consultant on golf for Fox Sports. His articles have appeared in publications such as Golfweek, Golf World, Golf.com and The Memorial magazine. Email: dan13153@gmail.com; Twitter: @WWDOD