USGA initiative focuses on golfers, courses to speed up play
By Scott Brown
Published: Saturday, June 1, 2013, 11:27 p.m.
The average golfer and the world's No. 1 play a different game, but there is one thing they can agree upon: Slow play can be a drag.
“Who wants to go out there and play for six hours when the game of golf should be played a lot faster than that and be enjoyable?” Tiger Woods said.
Pace of play may be one of the biggest threats to a game that, according to the National Golf Foundation, lost more than four million participants from 2005 to '11. And it will be a point of emphasis next week at the U.S. Open at Merion Golf Club outside of Philadelphia.
While Woods tries to end a five-year majors drought, the United State Golf Association will unveil an initiative designed to speed up play and educate people on the issue. The USGA has been researching pace of play for almost a year, and it has taken the lead in addressing the matter, something that no less a golf authority than Arnold Palmer applauds.
“That's got to be a big, big push,” Palmer said.
The National Golf Foundation defines slow play as waiting more than a handful of times to play on the group in front of a foursome. Ninety percent of people surveyed said slow play is the biggest factor in taking away from their enjoyment of the game. And 50 percent of golfers in a survey by the NGF and Golf Channel said they have walked off a course in frustration over slow play.
Four hours generally is considered an acceptable pace of play for 18 holes. Making that the standard, if not shaving 30 minutes off that benchmark, is critical for the game.
“People don't want to spend five hours doing something anymore,” Jack Nicklaus said. “So you really need to play the game in three hours or less, and we're not there. We need to have changes within the game of golf — not only for us and the (PGA) Tour.
New approach to old problem
The perception has been that slow play largely is the players' fault.
Golf is not easy, and only 25 percent of players regularly break 90, according to the NGF. Exacerbating the struggle to get around in a timely manner are etiquette-based factors such as players not being ready when it is their turn and parking their cart in a wrong location.
But when Rand Jerris, who is leading the USGA initiative on pace of play, immersed himself in the subject, he found that players are only part of the problem.
Jerris, the USGA's senior managing director for public services, said it is comparable to blaming traffic congestion on slow drivers. Other factors are involved, such as how many cars are on the road.
For that reason, Jerris said, the USGA also is placing the onus on golf professionals, course superintendents and facilities managers.
Superintendents and professionals can speed up play by working together on set-up, especially on days when courses get a lot of play. Moving tees up, cutting the rough and placing pins in more favorable locations are ways to facilitate faster rounds.
The USGA also will ask facilities to reassess how they send out golfers. Courses want to maximize their profits by getting as many players as possible out. But that can lead to a backup if groups are sent off too closely together.
Jerris said several studies have shown courses can get more rounds if they increase time between sending off groups. This, Jerris said, allows play to move at a brisker pace and translates into an increased number of golfers who can play.
Looking at golf as something of an ecosystem is part of the “integrated solution“ the USGA is pushing, Jerris said.
“This is a new concept to most golfers and golf facility managers,” Jerris said. “It's trying to teach people a new way of looking at this issue. We think the issue is too critical to let go.”
The USGA is not the only organization to think that way.
The PGA of America this year approved the use of electronic devices that measure yardage in all junior tournaments as a way to speed up play.
Along with the USGA, the organization also is supporting a “Tee It Forward” weekend on June 22-23. Golfers on both days will be encouraged to play a tee box ahead of what they normally do to improve their experience and speed up play.
Golf Channel, meanwhile, will devote a significant amount of programming this month to the issue and ways to address it. The initiative is titled, “It's About Time.”
A model for fast play
The Hideout Golf Club in Naples, Fla., doesn't take tee times, and it has just one rule: All groups must play 18 holes in no more than 31⁄2 hours.
“We think it's why we have a full membership, and we think it's what makes us special,” head professional Stuart Thomas said. “It truly is a selling point.”
Enforcing that rule, Thomas said, isn't a problem; club members generally police themselves and take pride in not breaking it.
“Can it be done at most every club?” Thomas said. “Yeah.”
That is not to say pace of play is not closely monitored at most courses.
Ligonier Country Club, for instance, tracks golfers' starting and finishing times — a more-than-subtle reminder to be mindful of pace of play.
“We're not doing it to make anybody miserable,” head professional John Klinchock said. “We're trying to get them around the golf course.”
Ligonier is not particularly long, but it has three par-3s that can play more than 200 yards. On days when a lot of traffic is anticipated on the course, Klinchock said, at least one of those par-3s will be significantly less than 200 yards — an effort to keep play moving.
That kind of thinking is what the USGA is trying to advance as its engineers work on a pace-of-play model that will be applicable to competitive and recreation golf. That model is expected to be completed by August.
The USGA, as part of its wide-ranging initiative, also is offering to send advisors to golf clubs nationwide to help combat slow play.
“It's certainly an issue that we believe is threatening the near-term and long-term health of the game,” said USGA spokesman Joe Goode, “and improving pace of play is a strategic priority for the USGA.”
Scott Brown is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at email@example.com or via Twitter @ ScottBrown_Trib.
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