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Does slow play actually help golfers? An email debate


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January 11, 2017

Welcome to another email debate between Golf Digest editors, where we tackle the big questions in golf by way of our inboxes. Today we're talking about slow play, and specifically if a tour player like Jason Day might actually need to slow down to play better.

Sam Weinman: Men, I wanted to convene a quick discussion about pace of play in golf, and how it affects our performance. I think we can all agree that playing faster has benefits for recreational golfers — certainly for the other people on the course, and maybe for our spouses who want us home to run errands. But that still doesn’t address the question of whether we actually play better when we play faster. Bob Carney, I wanted to include you in this discussion because I think of you as Golf Digest’s resident “play faster” evangelist. But I also wanted to hear from our colleague Jaime Diaz, who wrote something in response to Jason Day’s remarks last week in which Day said that he needs to play slower to be more effective. Jaime, interesting that you defended Day, saying playing slower indeed helps at the highest level. Tell me why you think that?

Jaime Diaz: Sam, I don’t have any data, just my own impressions from observations over the years. I wouldn’t say that all tour players play better when they play slower, although would guess that most do. And there are some Hall of Fame players who went crazy with slow play – notably Lee Trevino and Lanny Wadkins -- losing patience and playing worse for it. But it just seems that there’s a bigger proportion of slowpokes among the very best players, and I don’t think it’s an accident. Among today’s top guys, Day, along with like Spieth is slow. Of course Ben Hogan and Jack Nicklaus were notoriously slow. The most prominent No. 1 players of the last three decades -- Greg Norman, Nick Faldo and Tiger Woods -- all got slower as they got better. Or, just maybe, got better as they got slower.

Jack on putting: “I wait until I know I’m going to make it.”

It always seemed to me that when there was a shot of extra importance, certainly Nicklaus, Faldo and Woods would all take more time. There would be a lot of pre–shot information gathering, especially on the greens. With Faldo and Woods there was a lot of discussion with the caddie. But what I think was going on more than anything else was great players gathering themselves for a peak effort – getting their minds right, their bodies relaxed and their focus honed. Maybe the extra pressure of their station at the top of the game, or even entitlement, contributed to them playing slower. But my sense is that they used the extra time to their advantage, because in the case of Nicklaus, Woods and Faldo especially, it seemed that when they really needed it on very slow Sunday afternoons, they hit good shots. When Day says that he’s prepared to step away from a shot five times until he feels right about it, he’s talking about reaching that state of absolute readiness that the best players especially will take the extra time to attain.

Bob Carney: Anecdotally you'll find both deliberate players and more impulsive, or intuitive, ones among the game's greatest players. I've not seen as many great players close up as Jaime has, but I think of Trevino, Peter Thomson, Arnold Palmer, Johnny Miller, who played relatively fast. Trevino is an interesting case study. I think the most destructive thing you could do to Trevino's game, as an opponent, was to slow him down. People tried, but it was like stopping a train. Modern players tend to be more deliberate, I guess, but the question is, when are they deliberate? Talk to coaches who have worked with some of the best, I think of Gio Valiante and Dick Coop,and they'll tell you, echoing the book, “Golf’s 8-Second Secret” that says 20 seconds, more or less, is the norm, even among players we call slow, from pre-shot through swing. To say, well, if they took a little more time over the ball (or in their pre-shot routine) they'd be better would be pretty tough to prove, I'd think. So where do slow players get slow? In the information-gathering that precedes the routine: Checking the variables. Wind. Temperature. Lie. Precise distance, etc. Nicklaus and his yardage books changed the game in that respect, but all that deliberation takes place before the pre-shot "dance" that the great players seem to have. Same number of steps, same order, same number of looks, same number of waggles. etc.


Does more information really help good players? I can hear Rotella talking about that first look, the gut reaction. But even if more information and discussion between player and caddie helps on tour, I want to jump out a window--fast--when I think of telling average players to take more time. Why? Because they'll use the time in the wrong place and on the wrong stuff. Remember P.G. Wodehouse's “Wrecking Crew,” the four retired businessmen who held up the course as they "scratched the turf like crimson hens" but never let anyone play through? That's what I see on public courses, where golfers race around in carts only to deliberate endlessly, assessing the shot and standing rigidly over the ball, trying to remember every tip they've ever heard about a proper swing. Tour players use time to prepare. Average players use time to try to reinvent themselves. They'd be better off learning jazz piano. I issue this challenge. Play in a golf charity marathon. Play four rounds in a day and notice the way you play and the score you shoot when you're just trying to get it done, thinking only distance, target, solid hit. In my experience, you'll shoot about the same score you always do, perhaps better, because you get more consistent. The less thinking that goes on the better. Harvey Penick said, "Good players have the power to think while they are competing. Most golfers are not thinking even when they believe they are. They are only worrying." I wouldn't wish more worrying on anybody.

'The image I carry with me is that of Larry Bird running around the perimeter practicing threes, never stopping, making one after another…..Set, look, fire. That’s the way to go.'

Jaime Diaz: We are kind of having two different discussions. The most important one, and the reason Day got so much criticism, is the scourge of slow play in golf. There is no question that the example of tour pros playing slow and getting slower is bad for the game of golf at large. Their behavior on television gets modeled by all the weekend hacks who hit the ball a lot more times, which makes them miles slower overall and is a big cause of the public course five-and-a-half-hour round. Because average golfers don’t have the self-awareness and mental skills of the best pros, any extra time mostly just builds tension that causes them to play worse. I have no disagreement with Bob, or Harvey Penick or Wodehouse, on that score. My opinion was strictly about the best pros. Day – from the bubble of the tour - was expressing his view that taking more time helped him hit better shots, and it’s a view that other players hold, though they’ve been more careful about admitting it in public.

Also, I’m not suggesting the best pros take more time over the ball, or in the pre-shot routine that starts when they begin to into the address position. I would be very surprised if Hogan – whose waggle was briskly rhythmic – or Norman or Faldo or Woods slowed down in those areas. I’d bet they kept it the same, although one of the interesting anomalies about Nicklaus is that he didn’t have a consistent pre–shot routine, but rather took a variable number of waggles and looks at the target from shot to shot, or stood over putts for longer or shorter periods (Jack: “I wait until I know I’m going to make it.”) My only point was that at the highest level, many of the best players have enough mental control of the moment that what’s going through their computers is way more positive than negative, so why not feed as much good stuff into the psyche before actually pulling the trigger? Pros who want to keep each shot the same in terms of routine and time are generally the same ones who don’t want to look at the leader board. They are more comfortable limiting the variables, because the more stuff they let in, the more chance that some of it will be bad stuff. They have more fear that a pressure situation will hurt them then confidence that it will bring out their best. The very best players believe they can filter whatever goes in, so that more time just means more opportunity for good stuff. Watch the YouTube of Wood as he stalked that chip to the left of the 16th hole at Augusta in 2005 before he somehow holed it. He took forever, but everything in his pre-shot body language said he was girding himself for a supreme effort.



Obviously, there comes a point even for these type of players where taking more time becomes counterproductive, when it costs them athletic flow (not to mention being put on the clock). Beyond that, it becomes a question of temperament and preference. Tom Watson always played quickly, but never seemed rushed. His restless energy seemed to feed his intensity, and playing with dispatch sent a message that he was certain in what he was doing, and was taking no prisoners. Finally, some of the slowing down by players, especially on Sunday, comes out of self defense. A player trying to play quickly when all around him are playing slow is a distracted player. It’s easy to rush out of exasperation when it finally becomes your turn to play. To compensate, such players become extra deliberate, cutting down on their frustration and increasing their focus. I’m not in favor of slow play. Far from it. I’m just saying that with so much money and often, glory, riding on every shot in modern pro golf, players playing faster if they don’t absolutely have to is not going to happen. Most players are going to follow human nature and take all the time available, and superstar mentalities will want to get an edge by taking just a little more. Golf’s ruling bodies challenge to speed players up is finding a way to make them absolutely have to.

Bob Carney: How do you argue with Jaime? He’s so close to the tour guys, I won’t. What I will say is that in every sport, especially individual ones like golf, there is a desire to eliminate all doubt, to have every piece of data available, to own the best technology, to understand every intricacy of the motion. It is our modern-day Tower of Babel. And the more deliberation, the more discipline it takes to stay focused. Though some of my favorite players are methodical ones—Bernhard Langer and Padraig Harrington for two—I strongly believe that the vast majority of golfers, especially weekenders like myself, would benefit from a greater emphasis on reacting to the target, and from always playing with alacrity. The image I carry with me is that of Larry Bird running around the perimeter practicing threes, never stopping, making one after another…..Set, look, fire. That’s the way to go.

Jaime Diaz: One thing we haven’t discussed is that really the greatest source of slow play in pro golf is putting. There are two main reasons, and they are interrelated. First, it has become almost impossible to win tournaments these days when a player misses more than a very few inside of six feet. That makes those putts more important than ever, which makes looking at them from more angles and for a longer time practically a given. Secondly, the increasing speed of the greens leaves fewer tap ins and more comebackers in the four-to-five foot range, which slows play through all the ball-marking that goes on as well as the more careful looks those putts no get. And a fast putt with some break has to be more intricately read than a slow putt that won’t break as much or as subtly.

Sam Weinman: Well, I think you both raise interesting points about what causes slow play, and how it impacts your performance. There might also be something to the fact that people have naturally different rhythms, in the same way people talk and walk at different speeds. That doesn't necessarily excuse playing slower, but it does maybe explain why some guys struggle with it more than others. Anyway, gents, appreciate the insight. I look forward to next time.