News & Opinion

Golf’s big riddle, wrapped in a mystery

In a year when the world’s two best golfers also are among the quickest players in the game, slow play has become an unassailable epidemic. No topic has generated more reader response to this publication during the past eight months. If Tiger Woods hadn’t won the Masters, you could make a case that pace is on the short list of 2019’s most significant storylines.

Nobody sees progress. Everybody has solutions. And if it were only that simple, the problem would have been vanquished long ago. “What can be done? Nothing,” former PGA Tour commissioner Deane Beman told me back in March. “Speed of play is directly related to the size of the fields. The Tour semi-embraces the pace because, if it didn’t, it would have to cut those fields substantially, and nobody is going to [endorse] that. The Tour is trying to provide opportunities, not limit them.”

Luke Donald
Luke Donald tweeted some pace-of-play advice to his fellow touring pros, and it’s something that golfers of any ability ought to know.

It falls under the jurisdiction of Camp Ponte Vedra’s mission as a membership-driven organization, to serve the needs of all of its players. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander, so to speak, at least until you encounter a trifle of dander. When Brooks Koepka and Rory McIlroy denounced the Tour’s see-no-evil, enforce-no-policy posture shortly before the start of the FedEx Cup playoffs, the idea that the two men presiding atop the Official World Golf Ranking would use a postseason media briefing to dump on the home office had the neckties in a tizzy.

Four days later, the Tour announced that it would review its pace-of-play guidelines by using its ShotLink technology to identify the tortoises. There was no reference of potential sanctions, not even in a hypothetical context, leaving us to wonder.

Lip service or legitimate action?

When the Tour expanded its operations to include a New York bureau in 2005, a meeting was held in Manhattan to discuss ways of enhancing the onsite fan experience. The slow-play factor soon entered the conversation, specifically in regard to gaps between twosomes on the weekend. There are instances when grandstands full of patrons might wait 10-15 minutes for an out-of-position pairing, plus the general tedium that goes with waiting for some dude to complete his examination of that 10-footer for par.

A respected member of the Tour brass came up with a thought. Why not hire a couple of college kids to slingshot T-shirts into the crowd during those lengthy pauses? Lots of NBA teams were doing it during much shorter breaks, and there was talk of putting the idea into play on the 18th green at the Players Championship, which never materialized.

“Too carnival,” a knowledgeable source said. “Too many golf-traditionalist administrators shot it down.”

The anecdote speaks volumes about the Tour’s mentality on matters involving public perception. When you’re piling up revenue and making everyone with full-time playing privileges wealthy, the path of least resistance becomes the road most often traveled. It doesn’t make sense to rock the boat when the sea is so tranquil, and besides, a hefty percentage of hardcore golf fans are as resistant to change as the men who run the game.

So, getting the problem fixed is one thing. How to go about it is another thing entirely, which is why relying on ShotLink to combat slow play will hardly register with the masses. A shot clock? That’s another story. The concept has been employed in numerous other sports, including pro tennis and minor-league baseball in recent years, and for those who consider the idea silly, a precedent was set by the European Tour last June at the Austrian Open.

The Shot Clock Masters, it was officially called. And four penalties were imposed for failing to hit a shot in the allotted time of 40-50 seconds, depending on the order of play in each group. Strokes were issued to the slowpokes – and rounds were reduced by an average of about 45 minutes. If that doesn’t grab your attention, nothing will.

“Be ready when it’s your turn to play and you can certainly speed up play by a good amount,” Luke Donald tweeted. “Must say, makes watching more enjoyable!”

It’s hard to see the PGA Tour adopting such a measure, not only because of its reluctance to become aggressive on the matter, but the logistics involved. Says a Tour insider: “How do you [define] when it’s your turn to play? What’s 50 seconds? What’s 40 seconds? Is it practical to have a shot clock on the back of the cart of every rules official?”

All worthy points, but there’s a huge difference between a deterrent and an excuse not to pursue something. As it stands now, the Tour’s pace-of-play policy requires two instances of snail-like behavior before a player is even put on the clock. Given the use of time pars – a determination of how long it should take each group to complete a hole – those warned easily could make up the time and basically reset their standing to clear themselves of more serious action.

This explains why the PGA Tour has given out only one slow-play penalty in the past 24 years. The Tour has no problem rationalizing its position on slow play by pointing to the particulars of its related legislation, but its system doesn’t work, and some pretty important people are getting tired of it.

“The guys who are slow are the guys who get too many chances before they’re penalized,” McIlroy said. “It should be a warning, then a shot. That will stamp it out right away. I don’t understand why we can’t implement that. It’s not like we are children who need to be told five or six times what to do.”

McIlroy’s right. Kids move a lot faster than many Tour pros.

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