Letter From Europe
November 30, 2015

R&A wants to tackle slow play, but still steering clear of its own role

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Slow play is golf’s equivalent of the weather; everyone talks about it but no one does anything about it. Until now, at least. Following the results of a worldwide survey that attracted more than 56,000 responses from 127 countries, the game’s ruling body outside the United States and Mexico, the R&A, last week hosted the “Time for Golf” conference in St. Andrews.

About time too. Because there are clearly a lot of unhappy golfers out there. To the surprise of precisely no one, 60 percent of respondents to the survey registered varying degrees of dissatisfaction with the length of time they are asked to spend on the course. At least half of golf’s highest-profile perceived problems in the 21st century—“Takes Too Long, Costs Too Much”—appears to be based in truth.

Gratifyingly, the R&A’s new chief executive, Martin Slumbers, is one who appears to be all revved up about the example set by the increasing number of slowcoaches populating golf’s professional circuits. Describing their behavior as both “selfish” and “a form of cheating,” Slumbers went as far as to suggest that the culprits be “named and shamed.”

Strong stuff, but all 180 degrees removed from the feeble policy of “don’t name or shame” that currently prevails on both the PGA and European tours. In the more than four decades that have passed since the Old World circuit came into being, only 24 players have ever incurred a penalty shot for slow play. On the PGA Tour that figure slumps to a mere one in the last 20-odd years.

(Curiously, the Japanese PGA Tour is the one exception to the Old and New World’s apparent indifference. Rounds on that circuit routinely take no more than 3½ hours to complete.)

Still, it remains a sad fact that most of the professional game is seemingly quite happy to let players take longer and longer to complete 18 holes, never mind the terrible example being set to youngsters keen to get into golf.

The pros are not alone though. Despite all the talk of mid-round “spot checks,” the inadequacy of fines as a deterrent, the growing number of overly difficult bunkers and courses and the clear need for action on this interminable and perennial problem, the R&A must also stand accused of hypocrisy when it comes to slow play.

Unbelievably, only once during the two-day conference in the Home of Golf was there any mention of excessive green speeds as an aspect of the game that adds, according to a Danish Golf Union study, “10 minutes to every round for every foot over nine on the Stimpmeter.” And never was the absurd distances leading players hit the modern ball—and in turn the ever longer walks from greens to distant back tees—cited as an obviously detrimental factor in pace of play.

The more cynical amongst us will surely and quickly—oh, the irony—conclude that this lack of discussion was down to the R&A’s (and the USGA’s) reluctance to admit their abject failure to control the distances modern professionals can hit tee-shots wielding drivers with heads the size of frying pans. Then again, it is difficult to imagine even the least-cynical individual not arriving at the same conclusion.

Such a prominent omission largely renders pointless the two days delegates spent in the Home of Golf. If one of the most obvious—maybe the most obvious—problems in the game is not going to be addressed, the rest of the verbiage is reduced to mere window-dressing. If the R&A is not willing to accept that it has been and continues to be part of the problem, how can it possibly play a substantive role in any possible solution? Just asking.