VIRGINIA WATER, England — One month after announcing a four-point plan—regulation, education, innovation and (reduction of) field sizes—to counter the calamity that is slow play in professional golf, the European Tour is proving as good as its word. At this week’s BMW PGA Championship, two of those four building blocks will be in play.
Because of the tournament’s shift from late May to September, the field at Wentworth has dropped from 156 to 132. That has to do with the availability of less daylight, but another variable in the tour’s equation—innovation—is also part of the plan to get everyone around Wentworth’s West Course in timely fashion. All 44 three-balls will be tracked by a GPS system that will help the referees monitor pace of play and pinpoint each group’s position relative to those ahead and behind.
“A lot of the time players are unaware that they are out of position,” said John Paramor, the European Tour’s chief referee. “So we felt that we would like to find a method that would tell them when they are. So we are trialing this week a system where they will have that information on five tees [Nos. 4, 7, 10, 13 and 16]. The previous group’s time will be recorded when they walk off the green. Then that time will be deducted from that of the next group, who will then be able to tell if they are within time.”
Specifically, each monitor will operate a color-coded system, similar to a traffic light. If the number shown is red, then that group can expect to be monitored by the rules team very soon thereafter. If it is green, the players are in good shape and in position with the group ahead. Amber means the group is only slightly out position, but the players should be aware that they are going to have to move a little quicker.
“Going forward, we will want to see those numbers available on every hole,” Paramor said. “There will be a [GPS] tag attached to someone in each group. This week it will be the score recorders. That also relays information to headquarters. All the referees on the course—who will each have a tablet—will know where everyone is on the course."
Talking of tags, all the referees will be wearing one, so they'll be able to identify on their tablets the exact location of their colleagues.
“We all need to know where each other are,” Paramor said. “It’s amazing how much time is wasted when a call comes through for a referee. That reaches us pretty quickly, but if the person in the area does not respond—either through not getting the call, or he is already giving the ruling—the two next-nearest officials race to get there, only to find they are not required. The tablet system eliminates that.
“We are very much in the developmental stage with this," Paramor said. “It is a useful tool. It’s not going to make players play faster. But it will provide information. Players will be more aware. So hopefully they will take it upon themselves to get back in position without us having to tell them.”
Not surprisingly, this latest move by the European Tour has been met with almost universal approval from the players, especially the faster-moving members of the community. But there are doubts, too. And maybe a little cynicism. Only a little tongue-in-cheek, former Ryder Cup player Nicolas Colsaerts suggests attaching a buzzer to the body of potential slow players. And when they are deemed to be out of position, an electric shock is administered to a part of the body best left unmentioned here.
But Colsaerts says the overall plan “has to be a good thing—anything that tackles this issue, which has been on the table for too long. My only problem is that slower players don’t normally have much awareness when it comes to what is going on around them. Are these boards going to be in their faces enough to make them realize they are playing too slowly? Normally they have no idea when they lose touch with the group in front, a situation that is invariably pretty obvious.”
Anyway, in conjunction with this week’s efforts, every tour player, from rookie to veteran, is also going to be tested on what Paramor calls “the six or seven basic rules.” The 45-minute interactive test—taken by phone or online—will involve a series of multiple-choice questions, with 75 percent success representing a passing mark. Sadly, however, the results will not be made public.
“We are allowing the players to use the rule book,” Paramor said. “All the answers are in there. If they don’t make it to 75 percent first time around, they get another go at it. Exactly the same test. But if they fail again, they get 45 minutes to an hour sitting down with myself or [fellow referee] Andy Macfee. Personal tuition. If they want to avoid that—and most will—they need to pass the test.”