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Speed Bumps

While there may be hope for tackling slow play on the recreational level, expect change on the PGA Tour to occur, well, slowly. There are reasons things are the way they are

May 6, 2013

Sure, there was an outcry of sympathy when veteran rules official John Paramor assessed 14-year-old Chinese amateur Tianlang Guan a one-stroke penalty for slow play during the second round of the Masters. It's true that Guan isn't fully fluent in English, and that he was unfamiliar with professional golf's arcane (and easily circumvented) pace-of-play policy. But perhaps the moment will go down as a tipping point.

The fact is the gruff but highly respected Paramor had painstakingly implored Guan on four separate occasions to play faster. The teenager had nodded receptively, but then persisted in taking way too long to hit a shot. Sentiment aside, it was a case of a player -- even one of Tianlang's tender age -- unable to break an ingrained habit. Indeed, when American golf writers later approached three Chinese journalists to ask if they thought their young countryman had been unfairly victimized, their answer was unequivocal. "Oh, no," said one, as the others nodded, "he's really slow. He must speed up."

That's exactly the common belief about professional golf: really slow and in need of speeding up. Over the last year exasperating moments have kept the issue front and center. At the Players this week, the agonizing pre-shot ordeal and intentional whiffs of last year's 54-hole leader, Kevin Na, will be recalled. Next week the rewind will be on Morgan Pressel losing a crucial hole in the semifinal of last year's Sybase Match Play Championship for taking too long. In January at Torrey Pines, when Tiger Woods saw his eight-stroke lead with five holes to play turn into a four-stroke victory, he said constant waiting for the group in front had caused him to lose his concentration. And even the Guan controversy couldn't obscure the fact that it took Friday afternoon threesomes at the Masters 5 hours and 40 minutes to finish.

Related: Ten things about slow play

Still, anyone with a grasp of golf history can legitimately respond with "So what?" Outcries over slow play started even before Bobby Jones' address-to-impact time was less than three seconds and Gene Sarazen was missin' 'em quick. The dawdling of Ben Hogan and Cary Middlecoff would show the unenforceability of Rule 6-7, which directs competitors to "play without undue delay." In 1950, after the final second-round threesome in the previous year's U.S. Open required four hours, 21 minutes to complete its play, USGA chief Joe Dey said: "The time has come to act if the game is not to be seriously injured." After television began presenting golf regularly in the 1960s, many criticized Jack Nicklaus' interminable time over the ball for setting a damaging example. A 1965 cover story in Golf Digest headlined "Crisis in American Golf," stated in its first sentence that "the game of golf is slowing to a sickening near stop." Lee Trevino, whose brisk style recalled Sarazen, loved zinging slowpokes with lines like, "Just once, I wish I could play behind myself." The final round of the 1983 Kemper Open, still known among veteran officials as "The Longest Day," would prompt the PGA Tour to initiate a timing policy, but to little effect. In 1989, Jake Trout and the Flounders, fronted by Peter Jacobsen, sang "Slow Play" to the music of Eric Clapton's "Cocaine," changing the chorus to: "We don't like, we don't like, we don't like ... slow play."

tianlang guan

After his one-shot penalty on Day 2 of the Masters, Guan was seen as both a victim and a culprit -- not unusual in the slow play debate. Photo: David Cannon/Getty Images


The widely held belief that today more players -- and watchers -- like it even less adds to the sense that something significant might be in the offing. Golf participation has been going down at the same time Americans report being busier working. Time is of the essence in keeping people in the game. The USGA and PGA Tour are both in the midst of their most extensive studies ever on pace of play. Meanwhile, as the rest of life gets faster, well-known moves such as the Jim Furyk fake out, the Keegan Bradley stutter step, the Ben Crane waggle and the Jason Day eyes-closed zone out, have all become sources of annoyance to golf fans (and probably fellow players), not endearing quirks. Luke Donald has tweeted, "Slow play is killing our game."

"It feels like an emergency situation," says Geoff Ogilvy, a member of the PGA Tour's player advisory committee and one of the game's most perceptive observers. "Something is going to have to be done." Perhaps. But so far, Na was more successful at pulling the trigger during the Players than golf has been on a slow play policy with some teeth. Players continue to complain but won't confront, and leaders continue to study but don't lead. Meanwhile the exasperated golf fan continues to wait.

Why? Well, it's complicated.

First of all, competitive golf -- playing by the rules, counting every stroke, putting out on every hole -- is a far different animal than recreational golf. One careless stroke can ruin a round, a tournament, even a year. When millions of dollars -- and the fate of careers -- are at stake, the game's rulers long ago agreed that at the highest level, players should have a right to be deliberate.

The PGA Tour thought it was taking a big step toward controlling and deterring slow play when it instituted an enforcement system in the 1980s that remains largely intact today. In it, players are only subject to being timed when their group falls more than a hole behind. The players in the "out of position" groups are then given 40 seconds -- and in certain circumstances 60 seconds -- to hit their shots. If they incur a "bad time" once, they are given a warning (players put on the clock 10 times in a year are fined $20,000). If it happens again while the player's group is still out of position, he receives a one-stroke penalty. However, no player at a regular PGA Tour event has been issued a one-stroke penalty since Glen Day at the 1995 Honda Classic (see page 52). Under the system, players who are not out of position are free to take as long as they please to hit a shot.

Related: Pros who play fast

At the same time some critics say the system has to be toughened, in the last couple of decades, changes in the game have made it slower. They include:

• Firmer and faster greens, which lead to more careful study of all shorter shots, and many more second putts that are marked. It has been estimated that speeding greens up from a reading of 10 to 12 on the Stimpmeter adds about 20 minutes to the average round.

• Longer, more difficult courses. When 3 hours was considered the average time for a tour round, most courses measured less than 7,000 yards. Today, many are longer than 7,400 yards. There is also more time- consuming "backward" walking required between greens and lengthened back tees.

• As distance averages go up, there are more reachable par 5s and drivable par 4s that force more players to wait and cause longer backups.

• Longer pre-shot routines influenced by more work with sport psychologists.

• More involved yardage books, including separate "green reading" charts.

• The common practice of precisely aligning a drawn line on the ball on most putts.

• Longer and more frequent discussions with caddies.

"A lot of new time layers have been gradually added," says Ogilvy. "It took a long time for them to build up, and they aren't going to be eradicated overnight."

Changing back to softer and slower greens, shorter and easier courses is something the guardians of the game have resisted, as it would lessen the demand on skill that is the hallmark of crowning the most deserving winner.

On the other hand, many believe changing behavior could be achieved by toughening the system. The big one would be to forego the warning, which is what the LPGA does. It's a change favored by many, including Joe Ogilvie, whose Twitter avatar is "slow play" with a line drawn through it, and Tiger Woods, who last year said, "I think it's very simple. If you get a warning, you get a penalty. I think that would speed it up."

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