Slow Play's Darkest Day
Thirty-two years after the USGA refused to uphold penalties imposed by rules legend P.J. Boatwright, the game's pace of play remains stuck in reverse
In the end, as it always is, slow play is about perception.
So it was more than three decades ago, the last time the U.S. Open came to Merion, in what is believed to be the first and only time a slow-play penalty was rescinded in the championship's history. One of the two victims that day--or benefactors--was John Schroeder, long labeled one of golf's slowest players.
"I'm not ever going to deny that I was a slow player," he says. "I know who I am. But in this case, we were unfairly accused. I don't mind taking a stand against slow play, but to me in this particular situation there were extenuating circumstances."
Extenuating circumstances always seem to be at the center of any slow-play situation, and though neither side seems particularly in the right, what happened at Merion in 1981 says a lot more about who really sets the pace-of-play culture in golf than it does about how rules-makers, even perhaps the most respected rules expert in the game's history, could ever hope to contain--let alone cure--the full-blown pandemic that has become golf's glacial pace of play.
The USGA has announced a campaign to improve golf's pace of play, and president Glen Nager called slow play "one of the most significant threats to the game's health" in his annual address in February. He also noted that the USGA Research and Test Center is developing "the first-ever dynamic model of pace of play." But science is theory, and intent is admirable. In the real world, it's hard to overturn the excessive deliberation that today seems as much a part of golf's culture as short pencils. The penalty against 14-year-old Tianlang Guan at this year's Masters showed that slow play remains a judgment call few are willing to make.
'YOU'VE GOT TO BE KIDDING ME'
Of course, unraveling the details of the Merion episode is like watching "Rashomon" in the original Japanese. The details begin when the threesome of Schroeder, Forrest Fezler and John Brodie (the former NFL quarterback and future senior-tour player) finished their second rounds of the 1981 U.S. Open approximately 20 minutes behind the group in front of them. As they entered the scorer's tent, P.J. Boatwright, the USGA's executive director and its top rules official, approached Schroeder and Fezler and informed them they were both being penalized two strokes for violating what was then Rule 37-7, which required a golfer to play without "undue delay." Boatwright, a roving official with specific responsibilities for pace of play, had been monitoring the group for much of the back nine. Schroeder and Fezler were inside the cut line, and Schroeder had just finished with a second-round 68, which put him near the top of the leader board.
"I said, 'You've got to be kidding me. That's not reasonable, not reasonable at all,' " Schroeder says now, the fire still in his voice--though he insists he's not bitter, that playing in that Open did a lot of good things for his career, including getting him into the Masters and the next year's Open, where he was able to do television work that would lead to a second career.
In unprecedented fashion for the U.S. Open, Schroeder was granted an appeal of the penalty to the USGA's Special Rules Committee, which in addition to Boatwright included Will Nicholson, USGA president; Jim Hand, USGA vice president; and Bill Williams, USGA secretary.
The confrontation was a contrast in styles, to say the least. Boatwright, the genteel, yet exceedingly meticulous interpreter of the rules, was calm and direct; Schroeder and Fezler were aggravated. (Schroeder had finished bogey-bogey, and Fezler, who still politely declines to speak on the record about the incident, had nearly lost a ball on the 16th hole.) And they were vocal. As one report had it, Schroeder and Fezler went "beyond the 'dadgum' stage" during the meeting. (Fezler is perhaps better remembered for the 1983 Open, when he ducked into a portable toilet near Oakmont's 18th tee and finished the final round in shorts.)