You know that guy who takes three practice swings and reads putts from both sides of the hole? And that other guy who tells long jokes when it's his honor on the tee box? Turns out neither are responsible for the preponderance of five-hour rounds in this country.
The second annual Pace of Play Symposium was held at the USGA headquarters in Far Hills, N.J., last week. The purpose was "to exchange thoughts, ideas and solutions for improving the pace of play in golf." While this sounds like a grandiose version of the same futile, finger-pointing conversation overheard at the low-handicapper's table in the men's grillroom, it wasn't. Discarding assumptions and embracing the scientific method, the results of 17 research projects, conducted by people from all corners of the world, were presented over two days. The data was as robust as the coffee. And Golf Digest sat through it all so you didn't have to.
If there was one common finding among the independent projects, it's that the overriding factor is course management. No, not the kind that comes from reading yardage books, but how golf courses are actually operated by those who own them. This is encouraging, as the solution entails changing the behavior of a few thousand motivated stakeholders versus millions of unwitting Kevin Na copycats.
Rather than get bogged in the weeds of how the data was gathered (in one project, USGA interns spent their summers handing out GPS tracking devices to recreational players on the first tee and then collecting them on the 18th), let's simply highlight the key points.
The average round of golf in America takes 4 hours, 17 minutes, according to Lucius Riccio, Ph.D., who analyzed 40,460 rounds. The average time of dewsweepers, or the first group out, is 3:46. The length and Slope Rating of a golf course has almost no correlation with pace. The only statistically significant variable is how busy a course is. Golfers move like cars on the interstate. Rush hour is bad. Make too many merges too quickly, and gridlock ensues.
So the most effective change course owners can make is to increase tee-time intervals. In the 2014 LPGA Tour season, the average round time was reduced 14 minutes by switching from 10- to 11-minute intervals. "While competitive golf is a much easier nut to crack because we can enforce faster play with referees and penalties, the same principles apply to recreational golf," said Kevin Barker, assistant director of rules for the R&A. Many public facilities operate at eight-minute intervals. On the surface, moving to 10-minute intervals costs a course roughly 15 percent in revenue because fewer golfers can be accommodated on the tee sheet.
However, faster rounds means a course can go later into the day before charging twilight rates to players less likely to finish. It also means they can operate with fewer carts. Poppy Hills Golf Course sold 10 carts from its fleet after significantly improving its average pace of play.
Course setup is the second most important factor. Pete Rouillard, senior VP of golf operations for SunBelt Golf Corporation, which manages the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail in Alabama, pays strict attention to tees. During busy weekends, he's had success pushing the tees back on par 5s and reachable par 4s, to deter longer hitters from waiting to have a go at the green, and also moving the tees forward on par 3s to result in more greens in regulation for everybody. The idea is "to make every hole transition to a short par 3 at some point to improve the flow of a round."
Andrew Tiger, Ph.D., is big on flow. "Disney World has it figured it out, they make you wait while you think you're on the ride," he says. "A round that takes 4:18 where you don't wait feels infinitely better than a round that takes the same time where you wait for 18 minutes." Tiger has built a sophisticated model to predict how long a round will take depending on the precise features of each hole, the ability of the golfers playing, the number of golfers in a group and so on for as many variables as can be inputted, like say, if a group is playing a Scramble or Stableford format. The model is still a work in progress, but the USGA plans to work with Tiger closely in 2015. The goal is to be able to predict pace so acutely that courses can make management decisions and redesign accordingly.
The early returns suggest redesigns are indeed where you can pick up the most pace. Independence Golf Club in Midlothian, Va., shaved 45 minutes off its usual five-hour round by removing bunkers, making others less severe and overall increasing the playability of the course by removing large swaths of rough, which were costly to maintain and easy to lose a golf ball in. "The best players at the club say they've never had more fun playing," said Lester George, who oversaw the redesign. "You still keep the challenge, golfers like getting it thrown back at them once in a while, but you increase the shot options." "Golf courses used to be run on emotion, but as we go forward we're going to see them run more like businesses," said Stephen Johnston, founding principal of Global Golf Advisors.And if that means making them run faster, customers will be happy. It's quite possible the most useful conversation ever on slow play took 16 hours last week in New Jersey.