Does the PGA Tour have a pace of play problem?
That question, which feels ubiquitous if you're anywhere in the vicinity of the Great Golf Discourse in 2023, might seem ludicrous because the answer seems obvious: Of course, it does! In fact, the frustrating part is it's fundamentally unanswerable. Let's say, for instance, that the PGA Tour is right in claiming that the average round time is almost totally unchanged. Let's say, for instance, that someone like Patrick Cantlay is correct in claiming that the average round time is almost totally unchanged. Does that mean there's no problem, or that there's always been a problem? Or let's say you watch the latest video of Patrick Cantlay waggling endlessly over a ball in a way that's agonizing and annoying, but that, if you look at the broader context of his group's position on a course, actually doesn't have a serious effect on pace of play—is anecdotal evidence of individual dithering a pace-of-play problem on its own?
Gary Young, the PGA Tour's Senior Vice President of Rules and Competitions, is wise enough not to bother answering that question, at least without a few clarifications. Modest and affable, the 57-year-old former club pro is the de facto public face of the Tour when it comes to pace of play, and what bothers him most is the perception that he and his team aren't doing anything.
"Once in a while someone writes an article saying, yeah, the PGA Tour does nothing about pace of play," he said. "You hear that type of talk, and we're the ones who have to live with it, because we're the ones who do this every day. And it's just laughable to us ... imagine going to work every day and having someone says, 'you don't do your job very well.' "
After seeing a critical tweet by a Golf Digest staffer, Young invited us to ride with him at the Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow to see how the whole thing worked. It felt like a fair proposal—criticize away, but first see how the sausage is made. I happened to be the writer on site, and on a chilly Thursday morning at 6:30 a.m., we hopped on his green cart and headed for the 10th hole where the first threesomes were teeing off.
Young's team was nine strong in Charlotte, and while he serves as the chief referee at 12 events per year, the Wells Fargo wasn't one of them, which meant he was free to field questions. Bursts of chatter crackled from his radio: Officials calling for rulings, narrating the drama of Austin Cook rushing to the first tee when J.B. Holmes withdrew three minutes before his tee time, razzing one another to pass the quiet moments. They’d be there until the very end of play, a shift exceeding 12 hours.
Over the course of the morning, I was able to curb some of my previous ignorance, and what follows are the 10 most important concepts.
1. "Time Par" is the guiding light for pace of play
In order to enforce pace of play, there has to be a standard, and because every course and every field is different, that standard needs to be adjustable. Hence, "time par," a hole-by-hole breakdown of how long each twosome or threesome should spend on the course. As you can see in the image below, the rough guidelines for threesomes, are 12-14 minutes for a par 3, 14-16 minutes for a par 4, and 17-19 minutes for a par 5. Some holes get special dispensations, like the 17th at Quail Hollow, a particularly nasty par 3. There, time par is 14 minutes. Overall, time par for the entire round is 4:45 for threesomes, and four hours even for weekend pairs. With tee times separated by 11 minutes, time par allows for a steady rhythm of play, at least in theory, and Young can track it to the second on an app that updates instantly when the pin goes back in the hole.
2. Enforcement requires constant vigilance
The first groups off 1 and 10 on Thursday and Friday are of particular importance, since they set the pace for everyone behind them. If they stay on track relative to time par, everyone behind them simply has to keep up. (To be out of position, a group would need to arrive at an open hole on a par 3, fail to hit a tee shot before the hole is cleared on a par 4, or fail to hit all three tee shots before the hole is cleared on a par 5.) On the back nine, Young watched Ben Martin, Robby Shelton and Taylor Montgomery play at a brisk pace for the first four holes, staying three minutes ahead of time par. A difficult stretch at No. 14 set them back, though, and by the time they completed their fifth hole, they had lost seven minutes and were almost four minutes over time. The radio cackled with greater frequency, and after their tee shots on the 16th, John Mutch waited to give each player a warning.
This bearing of bad news is part of the job. And it's why Young won't get too close to any of the players—he knows that eventually he'll have to tell them something they don't want to hear.
3. There is a strict system of escalating warnings and penalties
Once a group is warned, they typically have two holes to get back on pace. In today's case, Martin, Shelton and Montgomery ate back the minutes and finished the back nine just one minute over time par—an acceptable number to everyone involved. If they hadn't picked up the pace, the next step would be to put them on the clock, at which point every shot would be timed by an observer. The average time for an individual shot is around 38 seconds, and anything under 50 seconds for a first shot and under 40 seconds for subsequent shots is considered kosher. There are a few caveats here—time spent walking to the ball doesn't count, and the clock will stop if a player has an issue with the gallery, or has to wait for another player to clear the area, or if he's in a tough spot on the course. Aside from those circumstances, a player who gets a "bad time," in Young's words, gets one free warning for the year. Any further excessive time violations, and the fines kick in.
Gary Young speaks to the media at the Players Championship.
"Let's say the fine is $50,000," Young said to me at one point, and I couldn't resist interrupting.
"Are we saying the fine is $50,000, or is it $50,000?"
"Let's say it's $50,000," he repeated, grinning.
The PGA Tour provided the official pace-of-play policy, which does indeed state that a second “bad time,” defined as over the limit when a group is on the clock, comes with a $50,000 fine, with each successive violation incurring another $20,000 fine.
Another way to incur a fine is to play in a group that gets timed (remember, official timing comes after a warning) 12 times in a season. There is also the potential of a stroke penalty, and eventually a disqualification, but as Young said, "you'd have to be brain dead to get that." A player’s group would have to be warned, then he'd have to be put on the clock, then he'd have to get two bad times in the same tournament before any stroke penalty would apply. The last time Young remembers such a penalty occurring came at the 2021 PGA Championship at Kiawah, and they're loathe to assess such penalties because they're not equitable between players; someone in the top 10 could lose hundreds of thousands of dollars for a one-stroke penalty, while another who was below the cut line wouldn't lose anything.
(Of note: according to Young, all money from fines is given to charity. The PGA Tour declined to release any annual fine totals.)
4. Meticulous data is kept on each player, and they know it
Every shot by every player is entered into a database by tournament volunteers who simply push a button to generate a timestamp, and taken together over a rolling 10-tournament period—with the slowest 10 percent of times thrown out to guard against volunteer error, and further exclusions for penalties, drops, provisionals, and even the first group shot in a similar position—they paint an in-depth picture of each player's pace. The players themselves can see their updated ranking each week on their members app.
With thousands of shots at their disposal, Young and his team feel confident that the sample size is plenty sufficient to draw conclusions. He receives a list each week, and any player who averages more than 45 seconds per shot goes on the Observation List. Those players are able to see their own ranking on their member app, so that they know where they stand among their peers. With that data, Young can not only monitor those players whose averages have exceeded 45 seconds, but he can also sit down with the worst offenders. His pitch at these meetings is usually the same: "I'm not saying you have to become a fast player, but we need to get you closer to being an average player."
Recently, Young sat down with a player who was confused about why they were meeting.
"I'm not part of the problem," he said. "I'm ranked seventh."
"That means you're ranked seventh slowest," Young explained, and the player's face fell.
The data can be further broken down into five component parts based on the type of shot, and that gives players a more complete picture of where they're taking the most time. A given player could, for instance, be plenty fast from tee to green, but spend too long over his putts.
All of these numbers are a massive help to Young, if only for his own justification. In the past, slow players would often accuse the tour of profiling them; hard numbers remove that argument, and place Young on solid ground.
5. The quickest fixes are not always the best fixes
There are two foolproof ways to make PGA Tour rounds faster. The first is to make courses easier, but as Young pointed out, that would make tournaments less interesting and be less effective at identifying the best players. (They do occasionally make the setup easier on Thursday and Friday, when slow play is more impactful before the cut and it can speed things along.) The second way is to reduce fields, and while the PGA Tour is taking steps in that direction next year, theirs is also a member organization, and any gain in pace of play has to be weighed against fewer opportunities for its players.
6. A 156-man field is probably "too many" players for fast play
As we watched our trio play the back nine in just one minute over time par, and the group that started on No. 1—Ryan Armour, Kevin Streelman, and Hayden Buckley—play in three minutes under par, Young explained the accordion effect, and why the pace wouldn't last—the moment they made the turn, the course would be saturated with 26 groups, and now any delay would affect the entire field as the accordion compressed. At that point, delay is inevitable, and according to Young, a field size of 144 is the number beyond which things get tricky, particularly in the winter. To prove his point, our group of Martin/Shelton/Montgomery made the turn at one minute over time par, but finished the round 13 minutes over. They lost 12 minutes to waiting on the back nine, for a group time of four hours, 58 minutes.
"When it gets to this time of year, when the sun comes up earlier and goes down later, we can achieve 156," he said. "But when you ask us to do a 156 when really only 144 players could possibly finish, that's where it becomes a problem, and I think that has led to some of the unnecessary criticism of the tour. And people say that we have a pace-of-play problem. No, we don't. We don't. We're just maximizing the opportunities for our membership right now."
At that point, the goal for each group is simply to be "in position," and that's why, as frustrating as someone like Cantlay can be at his most deliberate, there’s not a direct correlation between that type of waffling and slow pace. If his group is bound to wait on the next tee anyway, it actually doesn't matter what Cantlay does in that moment, annoying as it might be to watch.
7. Yes, there are problematic slow players
By the same token, the Cantlays of the world absolutely can be human delays under the wrong circumstances. Young routinely mentioned the traffic jam metaphor—if everyone went the same speed, it would flow beautifully, but the world doesn't actually work that way, which means that slowness is a “fender bender” just the same as a penalty, and it all impacts total time. While Young doesn't think that slow play is a worse problem now than ever before, he did concede that the increased reliance on analytics, along with more thorough caddie involvement, had made young players slower than their elders. Part of this, he said, is down to the dearth of pace standards in college golf, and how young pros have to be broken of their school habits on the Korn Ferry and PGA Tours.
8. Television and popularity can impact the best players
Tee times are typically grouped on Thursdays and Fridays with Class 1 players—the elite of the elite—in the middle of the tee sheet. With cameras following on every hole, plus bigger galleries, these players deal with a lot more "settling" before shots than their lesser-known colleagues, which can add time.
"Then again," said Young, "I don't think I've ever seen Rory McIlroy being timed."
9. The rules officials have a certain amount of discretion
Young and his team have to take a holistic approach to group warnings. At one point Thursday morning, a group had faded to four minutes behind time par, but because they were close to making the turn, and because the groups ahead of them were "bumping" into later groups on the back nine, there was no need to put them on the clock—a little gap would be a good thing, at least for the time being. A few years ago, they also earned the right to put individuals, rather than the entire group, on the clock, especially if they witnessed the other members of the group hustling after a warning. And while no player appreciates being singled out, the faster members of the group absolutely appreciate when an official recognizes their attempts to set things right, and frees them from punishment for the actions of a playing partner.
10. Peer pressure is a potential answer
When I asked Young whether they might ever make the pace-of-play rankings public (as of now, it isn't even sent to his entire team), he told me that the answer wasn't a definitive no. It would have to come from the players, he said, deciding that a kind of public shaming would be to the overall benefit of the tour. It doesn't seem especially likely, but, as Young said, "some guys say there's nothing like a little peer pressure."
When I asked Young if he kept the slowest players out of the first, pace-setter groups, he said no—on principle, they didn’t want to hide them, but it was also true that nothing worked to speed up a slow player quite like the pressure of being a pace-setter for the whole tournament.
• • •
I left convinced that if there is a pace-of-play problem, it's not something that can be fixed without a few radical sacrifices. In other words, the next time I see a tweet noting that the tour has failed to reach the cut on Friday in the winter months, with a full field, I'll understand that there's not any real blame to throw around. Young and his team exist within the context of how the tour is run, from course conditions to field size to simple hours of daylight, and within that context the operation seemed sufficiently well-oiled. Smaller fields, harsher fines, and a public reckoning might make some difference, but it's hard to imagine what more they could do as things currently stand.
Certain criticisms now seem more facile to me—those who argue that they play four-hour rounds at their club ignore the millions of dollars at stake (not to mention the tougher conditions) on tour, while the punishment fetishists who think they can legislate their way to faster rounds are mostly unaware of practical realities on the course. Barring drastic changes from above—some of which we'll get next year with reduced field events—Young's combination of soft pressure, vigilance and professional rectitude seem like the best fit.
In real life, mitigation will beat the magic wand every time.