The Local Knowlege

Golf & Business

The real cause of slow play isn't what you think

You know that guy who takes three practice swings and reads putts from both sides of the hole? And that other guy who tells long jokes when it’s his honor on the tee box? Turns out neither are responsible for the preponderance of five-hour rounds in this country. 

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The second annual Pace of Play Symposium was held at the USGA headquarters in Far Hills, N.J., last week. The purpose was “to exchange thoughts, ideas and solutions for improving the pace of play in golf.” While this sounds like a grandiose version of the same futile, finger-pointing conversation overheard at the low-handicapper’s table in the men’s grillroom, it wasn’t. Discarding assumptions and embracing the scientific method, the results of 17 research projects, conducted by people from all corners of the world, were presented over two days. The data was as robust as the coffee. And Golf Digest sat through it all so you didn’t have to.  

If there was one common finding among the independent projects, it’s that the overriding factor is course management. No, not the kind that comes from reading yardage books, but how golf courses are actually operated by those who own them. This is encouraging, as the solution entails changing the behavior of a few thousand motivated stakeholders versus millions of unwitting Kevin Na copycats.

Rather than get bogged in the weeds of how the data was gathered (in one project, USGA interns spent their summers handing out GPS tracking devices to recreational players on the first tee and then collecting them on the 18th), let’s simply highlight the key points. 

The average round of golf in America takes 4 hours, 17 minutes, according to Lucius Riccio, Ph.D., who analyzed 40,460 rounds. The average time of dewsweepers, or the first group out, is 3:46. The length and Slope Rating of a golf course has almost no correlation with pace. The only statistically significant variable is how busy a course is. Golfers move like cars on the interstate. Rush hour is bad. Make too many merges too quickly, and gridlock ensues. 

So the most effective change course owners can make is to increase tee-time intervals. In the 2014 LPGA Tour season, the average round time was reduced 14 minutes by switching from 10- to 11-minute intervals. “While competitive golf is a much easier nut to crack because we can enforce faster play with referees and penalties, the same principles apply to recreational golf,” said Kevin Barker, assistant director of rules for the R&A. Many public facilities operate at eight-minute intervals. On the surface, moving to 10-minute intervals costs a course roughly 15 percent in revenue because fewer golfers can be accommodated on the tee sheet. 

However, faster rounds means a course can go later into the day before charging twilight rates to players less likely to finish. It also means they can operate with fewer carts. Poppy Hills Golf Course sold 10 carts from its fleet after significantly improving its average pace of play. 

Course setup is the second most important factor. Pete Rouillard, senior VP of golf operations for SunBelt Golf Corporation, which manages the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail in Alabama, pays strict attention to tees. During busy weekends, he’s had success pushing the tees back on par 5s and reachable par 4s, to deter longer hitters from waiting to have a go at the green, and also moving the tees forward on par 3s to result in more greens in regulation for everybody. The idea is “to make every hole transition to a short par 3 at some point to improve the flow of a round.”

Andrew Tiger, Ph.D., is big on flow. “Disney World has it figured it out, they make you wait while you think you’re on the ride,” he says. “A round that takes 4:18 where you don’t wait feels infinitely better than a round that takes the same time where you wait for 18 minutes.” Tiger has built a sophisticated model to predict how long a round will take depending on the precise features of each hole, the ability of the golfers playing, the number of golfers in a group and so on for as many variables as can be inputted, like say, if a group is playing a Scramble or Stableford format. The model is still a work in progress, but the USGA plans to work with Tiger closely in 2015. The goal is to be able to predict pace so acutely that courses can make management decisions and redesign accordingly.

The early returns suggest redesigns are indeed where you can pick up the most pace. Independence Golf Club in Midlothian, Va., shaved 45 minutes off its usual five-hour round by removing bunkers, making others less severe and overall increasing the playability of the course by removing large swaths of rough, which were costly to maintain and easy to lose a golf ball in. “The best players at the club say they’ve never had more fun playing,” said Lester George, who oversaw the redesign. “You still keep the challenge, golfers like getting it thrown back at them once in a while, but you increase the shot options.” 
“Golf courses used to be run on emotion, but as we go forward we’re going to see them run more like businesses,” said Stephen Johnston, founding principal of Global Golf Advisors.
And if that means making them run faster, customers will be happy. It’s quite possible the most useful conversation ever on slow play took 16 hours last week in New Jersey.   


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News & Tours

The USGA and LPGA do the math: longer tee-time intervals lead to shorter rounds

It takes a mental leap to accept that an effective way to speed up play in golf -- whether at the competitive or recreational level -- comes by putting more time between groups on a course. Spreading out tee times intuitively would appear to have the opposite effect, making everybody's round end later.

USGA technical director Matt Pringle spent parts of both days at this week's Pace of Play Symposium in Far Hills, N.J., attempting to dispel the seeming contradiction. Arguably the best data he had to prove it came out of a joint partnership that the USGA entered with the LPGA in 2014 to try and improve pace of play on the women's tour -- one in which the average round time was reduced by 14 minutes.

At the start of the season, the LPGA employed 10-minute intervals between its starting times when playing in threesomes. Officials tracked times for the first six events of the year and passed this information on to the USGA. During these events the average time for a round was 4 hours 54 minutes, with the average time for the longest round of the day being 5:12 and the longest round recorded overall taking 5:35.

Analyzing the times, Pringle recommend to LPGA officials to try 11 minute intervals in their tee times, suggesting that part of the reason for the long rounds came from players waiting on groups ahead of them. LPGA chief tour operations Heather Daly-Donofrio said there was some apprehension initially from players concerned it might lead to more delays, not fewer, but they eventually agreed to try it figuring they could always go back if it didn't work.

In short order, the times actually did drop, with the average round taking 4:49, the average of the longest round of the day falling to 5:04 and the longest round overall coming in at 5:24.

Additionally, the LPGA also made a change to its own pace-of-play policy on tour, which went into effect at the Kingsmill Championship in May. Rather than assign a time par for all groups to conform to, only the lead group would now be required to meet the time or be subject to warning and individual timing over shots. Subsequent groups, meanwhile, would be responsible instead with maintaining position on the course in relation to the group preceding it.

"The time par policy [for all players] had people focusing on groups behind them and whether they had people waiting on them," Daly-Donofrio said. Conversely, the new policy emphasized focusing on the group ahead and making sure you're not too far back.

The combination of the new policy and 11 minute intervals has results in even faster play. The average round time fell to 4:40 -- 14 minutes quicker than at the start of the year. The average of the longest round was 4:54, the amount of time that previous was the overall average. And the longest round total dropped to 5:13, an improvement of 22 minutes.

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Golf & Business

The tool USGA officials hope will help solve the problem of slow play

usga-flagstick-device-175.jpgUSGA technical director Matt Pringle knows he can't wave a magic wand and make golf's slow-play problems disappear. But when he speaks during the Pace of Play Symposium the USGA is hosting this week at its headquarters in Far Hills, N.J., Pringle is looking forward to showing off a new device he hopes will some day help address the issue at the recreational level.

As part of the two-day gathering -- pro/amateur golf being the focus of discussion Wednesday, everyday golf up Thursday -- Pringle will unveil a prototype tool the USGA has been developing that attaches to a flagstick (see photo) and can be used to track the time between groups on a course. The device is triggered when the flagstick is placed into the cup (which has sensors in it along with the bottom of the flag stick) by a group walking off a green after players have putted out. It then tracks the time until the flagstick is removed from the cup by golfers approaching in the next group. These "cycle times," measured throughout a course, can then be monitored collectively to address issues in real time to try and get groups moving.

According to Pringle, the USGA began looking into developing the flagstick tool to give course operators an inexpensive but practical way to measure pace of play at their facilities. "It's our feeling that there are a lot of golf courses that are going blind," Pringle says. "They have no means of measuring, and therefore controlling, pace in any way, shape or form. The thing is, you really just can't leave it to chance."

Indeed, Pringle will show the USGA, which is hosting the symposium for a second straight year, is doing anything but leaving things to chance regarding slow play when he and colleague Scott Mingay present data the association gathered during the summer. At more than 130 public and private courses around the country, golfers were given GPS loggers to track them during their rounds, recording their location and the overall time to play as well as time spent waiting to play shots, among other metrics.

Pringle says more than 5,400 rounds were tracked, with the numbers being used to help the USGA offer recommendations, policies and solutions to deal with slow play, some of which will be discussion points this week.

In trying to broadly study the problem of slow play, Pringle and Mingay have looked to other industries that similarly rely on efficiently moving people or products through a defined system. Think Walt Disney World and its lines for rides and concessions, or UPS processing and delivering packages around the world.

"I feel a little bit sheepish when I talk about this project," Pringle says. "I think what we're doing is very advanced for golf, but if you were in a factory, Henry Ford would have done this [100 years ago]. . . . It's kind of cold to describe it like that, but this is a time and motion study on a very complex factory."

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By extension, the prototype flagstick tool (see the cutaway above) is an attempt to allow any facility the opportunity to study their own unique assembly line.

"We're not trying to make any money on this," Pringle says, "but we see it as an opportunity to help a lot of courses improve pace."

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News & Tours

Jim Furyk, not Kevin Na, 'probably the slowest player'

By John Strege

Kevin Na has become golf's poster boy for slow play, but is he being unfairly targeted? Is he even the slowest player on the PGA Tour?

Brandel Chamblee and Arron Oberholser engaged in an interesting conversation on Golf Channel's Golf Central Pregame Saturday morning and were in agreement on their answers.

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Yes to the first question, no to the second.

Oberholser did not say who he thinks is the slowest player, only that Na "is not the slowest player out here...He is unfairly scrutinized for his slow play."

Chamblee, meanwhile, said that that honor of slowest player probably goes to Jim Furyk.

"Jack Nicklaus was slow...Bernhard Langer was probably the slowest player in history," Chamblee said, "and Jim Furyk is probably the slowest player on this PGA Tour. None of them were criticized or blighted by the stigma of slow play to the extent that Kevin Na is being subjected to."

Related: A Solution to Slow Play

One reason, Chamblee said, is that television viewers get to see Na's pre-shot incertitude.

"Jim Furyk is a slower player than Kevin Na, but Jim Furyk is consistent with his pre-shot routine. [Golf television producers] Tommy Roy and Brant Packer and Lance Barrow, they know that they don't go to him until he backs away from his putt the first time. You don't see all those deliberations that Jim Furyk is going through.

"The two instances on Saturday, 2012, the Players Championship, and last Saturday, Kevin Na was inconsistent with his pre-shot routine. They'd go to him and he'd back away, so there was no way for them to predict how long his pre-shot routine was going to take, so if you watching at home you thinking, 'gosh, he's the slowest player out here.'"

Na was being heckled by some in the crowd during the second round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational on Friday.

(Getty Images photo)

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