A few minor tweaks to its current pace-of-play guidelines and a major new technology initiative that could be introduced in the first quarter of 2015 are the latest steps the PGA Tour is taking to address the long-troubling issue of slow play.
Slugger White, PGA Tour vice president of rules and competition (Getty Images photo)
Beginning with this week's 2014-15 season opener, the Frys.com Open in Napa, Calif., the first player who has the honor in each group is allowed 50 seconds to complete his stroke. Previously, the first player to hit was given 60 seconds. The remaining players in each group are given 40 seconds to play, no different from past years.
Additionally, a slight alteration has been made to defining whether or not a group is out of position on a par-5 hole. Previously, the player handbook established that a group is out of position when it reaches "... a par-4 or par-5 and have not played a stroke from the teeing ground before the hole is open and free of play." Now, on a par-5, all players (not just one) must have played a stroke before the preceding group has left the green.
"There's always room for improvement to ease flow on the golf course," said Andy Pazder, the PGA Tour's executive vice president and chief of operations, who added that the current fine structure for pace-of-play violations has not been altered. "Even some small changes could make a difference."
"Flow" is the operative word here. Slugger White, a vice president of Rules and Competitions for the tour, thinks little can be done to quicken pace of play with fields of 144 or 156 players because the golf course is simply congested. "Geoff Ogilvy said it best," White said. "It's like rush hour on the L.A. Freeway. It's going to be slow because there's no room for all the cars. That's what we have with a field of 144. We don't have pace-of-play problems at Bay Hill or Memorial with 120-player fields."
The goal, then, with fields of 144 or more, is to regulate the flow of competition. "You talk to players, and no one complains when they play in 4 1/2 hours and they're not standing around," Pazder said. "They wait on every shot and even if it takes the same 4 1/2 hours they get frustrated because it feels slow."
To better facilitate flow, the tour plans a rollout of a new ShotLink-based tool for tournament officials. Pazder said the feature would enable rules officials to monitor the pace or "time par" of every competitor. Testing could begin before year's end with the hope that the tool will be available by the end of the first quarter.
"We're very excited about this system," Pazder said. "It would enable Slugger or Mark Russell to see how long it takes each player on the golf course to hit every shot. They can see a group out of position, but the hope is that this helps them never get out of position."
Like other aspects of the ShotLink system, a walking scorer assigned to each group is responsible for collecting pace-of-play data. Although results are likely to be highly arbitrary, given the variation among volunteers on deciding when to start a stopwatch, Pazder said the information still should provide a relatively meaningful snapshot of how expeditiously a player is proceeding.
Pazder added that the information would not be used to penalize players. A rules official still would have to follow protocol and observe a group to determine if it should be put on the clock.
"It's probably not the perfect system, but it's a start," said tour veteran and former Open champion Stewart Cink, a member of the Player Advisory Council. "We're already asking volunteers to do a lot, and to time each player for each shot. It won't be easy to keep up. If nothing else we'll collect a lot of data points and start to put together averages." Which might not be all good.
"I can see there being some fireworks," Cink said. "Because what the numbers can't tell you is that maybe there was a lost ball or a ruling or extenuating circumstances like getting the crowd moved. The numbers won't have any context at all, and some guys might have cause to argue that point."
"This could help, but we'll wait and see," White said. "I'm open to anything. We'll try anything. There's certainly potential, but our rules officials already do a great job of monitoring pace of play. You sit with us for 12 hours (during a tournament round) and 90 percent of our time is spent on slow play. Given the size of the fields, there is only so much that anyone can do."