May
15
2012
Tour slow-playing slow play
By Stephanie Wei under PGA Tour

The waiting game...

Slow play has been an epidemic on the PGA Tour since as long as anyone can remember. Every year it’s the same ol’ story — fans/media/players complain and it’s always brought up at least once in the annual Players Meeting, but the pace of play on Tour hasn’t improved. It’s become one of those things that’s almost become part of the game. At least on Tour, but Kevin Na’s waggles and whiffs put a massive spotlight on the slow play issue, which was already a point of contention heading into the week.

Interesting enough, this week’s event marks the 20th anniversary of the last time a player — Dilliard Pruitt, who is now, coincidentally, a Tour rules official — was stroked a one-shot penalty for slow play at the ’92 Byron Nelson Classic.  *Update: Last player stroked was acutally Glen Day at the ’95 Honda Classic.

The Tour’s pace of play policy references Rule 6-7 in the USGA’s Rules of Golf and it also defines “Out of Position,” stating:

The first group to start will be considered out of position if, at any time during the round, they exceed the time allowed to play, as detailed on applicable course’s Pace of Play Chart. Any subsequent group will be considered out of position if, at any time during the round, they (a) exceed the allotted time to play and (b) reach a par-3 hole that is open and free of play or reach a par-4 or par-5 hole and have not played a stroke from the teeing ground before the hole is open and free of play.

In regard to “Timing,” the rules officials determine a group is out of position, then all the players will be timed and informed they’re on the clock. The time limit or “shot clock” is 40 seconds with an extra 20 seconds given several exceptions (not all shots take the same amount of time to play). First time you receive a bad time, you get a warning, and then if you get another, it’s a stroke penalty. That’s what the rules read, but the Tour doesn’t apply it.

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Last Wednesday in a pre-tournament press conference, Commissioner Tim Finchem was asked to comment on the Tour complying with the USGA standards and stroking players.

“I actually think we might want to experiment with penalty shots,” he said. “But I don’t think penalty shots make a difference to be honest with you.”

Really? Well, if you haven’t done it in 20 years, how would you know if it’d work?

After his final round at the players, Tiger Woods didn’t mince words (for Tiger) on the topic. In 2008 he went out of his way to bring up the slow play problem. Has anything changed in four years?

“Worse,” said Tiger. “Last week (at Quail Hollow), we were playing in 4:40 and there’s no wind.  That’s hard to believe.

“We have gotten slower on Tour.  College has gotten just incredibly slow.  It’s so bad that now we are giving the guys the ability to use lasers to try to speed up play, and they are still in, you know, 5:45, 6:00 plus.”

Yep, it’s been like that for over a decade. It’s painful.

The easy solution?

“I think very simple, if you get a warning, you get a penalty,” said Woods.  “I think that would speed it up.”

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More waiting

In an informal poll I did last week among at The Players, all but one said the only solution to fixing slow play would be to dole out strokes.

When I asked Henrik Stenson for his response to Finchem’s comment, the Swedish golfer said, “They don’t give strokes here?” He seemed surprised. Stenson is a member of both the European and PGA Tours. He was aware that the slow pokes receive fines.

“Giving strokes would speed things up if you’re stricter with the rules,” he told me on Saturday after the third round of The Players Championship. “People already get pretty heavy fines. Over here, you can get fined $20,000 if you’re on the clock more than 10 times in one season.

“When I won here in ’09, I was given a letter after the tournament that I’d been on the clock 3 times. I’m not going to mention any names, but I was playing with certain players who are not known to be the quickest and then I got a warning letter. I consider myself to be in the middle (speed-wise).”

The fines clearly aren’t enough to motivate a player to speed up, and why would they? (Aside from the most basic: common courtesy.) The crime is worth the punishment.

“What’s the difference between first and second right now?  How much is it? he asked. Reporters replied that it was about $800,000.

“So I would take the five grand and over the 800K,” said Tiger. “But that’s one shot, and that’s the difference.  That’s what people don’t realize is that one shot is so valuable out here.”

Brian Davis, who is one of the quicker players, also doesn’t think purely fines is enough incentive.

“I think we should just play for a million bucks every week and everyone would just run,” said Davis on Sunday, with a wry smile. “There are six million (or more) reasons why to slow down.

“Some guys are slow and they want us to police ourselves, but obviously we can’t. The men upstairs usually get it right. I’d be scared if they said, you get bad times, it’s a shot. If they just say, we’re timing you, you have a bad time, you’re penalized a shot. I’d panic. I’d run.”

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See ya later, suckers.

On Friday the threesome of Matt Every, Colt Knost and Harris English arrived on the 18th tee and took a seat in chairs alongside the tee. They had a good five minutes or more.

Colt called to me from across the tee box and said frustratedly, “Hey, Stephanie, I have a story you need to write–how effing slow these guys in front of us are playing. It’s ridiculous. Five hours and 20 minutes.”

I told him that he didn’t need to worry about that — we were all over it already.

He was also very vocal throughout the week via Twitter:

“Love it when it take 5.5 hours to play a round of golf. So ridiculous!!!”

Rickie Fowler replied:

@ColtKnost beat ya…5 hours 20 mins…morning wave…boom!! #waitedeveryshot

On Sunday, Knost missed the cut, but watched the final-round coverage and said:

Final group at the players is over a hole behind!! Pace of play is no issue!! FALSE

World No. 2 Luke Donald, watching from his TV at home, tweeted at the season opener in Hawaii:

“Slow play is killing our sport.”

After the third round at The Players, Donald raved about his playing partner:

“My new favourite golfer to play with is Bill Haas, top bloke and always ready when it’s his turn, one waggle and he’s off #refreshing

You know there’s a problem when “slow play” is basically trending on Twitter and overshadowing the fifth major. In fact, he nearly stole the show, thanks to Kevin Na. However, perhaps it had to take something this extreme for Na to really address his waggle and trigger-pulling issue, and for the PGA Tour to finally start enforcing the rule and pace of play policy more stringently.

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Tick-tock, tick-tock!

Apparently, the European Tour, who has the same policy, takes slow play much more stringently and it’s not rare a player receives a penalty stroke.

“The rules officials are more people’s tails in Europe on speed of play, for sure,” said Stenson.

Added Davis, jokingly: “The officials are brutal in Europe. They jump out of the trees and say, ‘Gotcha!’”

Stenson and Davis both pointed out a gray area that could cause problems when it comes to give out penalty strokes for slow play.

“If you take a guy a stroke, it might not be only necessarily a check but the tournament and that’s a lot of cash,” said Davis. “I think penalties would make a difference, but problem is there’s a fine line between when do they start the clock and when does he officially start.

“They want us to police ourselves, but obviously we can’t do it.”

Some shots also take longer to play than others, which was Stenson’s concern.

“If you’re usually a quick player, but you hit a bad shot and you’re on the clock because someone in your group is slow,” he said, “You’re going to miss a green and end up with a tough shot somewhere and you’re not going to feel like you have that minute to go up and look (at the green) because all of a sudden you get a bad time. The other players is really the slow one, but I’m going to get the bad time.”

What about imposing a total time limit allowed for all shots you play? Well, it’d be difficult to monitor that and a pain to have someone time every single player (though it has been done by the intrepid team of Golf Mag staffers last year at Bay Hill). Hypothetically, it’s a logical and fair concept.

This is what another player suggested: Let’s say a player has 46 minutes — that’s a totally arbitrary number — of shot time for the round. When I tee off, a person is timing you, but total amount of time to play all your golf shots. Some shots take more quickly to play them, so when you have a shot that requires more time, more than 40 seconds of attention, you can use that time. If it takes someone a long time on every shot and exceed 46 minutes, maybe they should be penalized.

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I feel like with all the critique and negative attention the Tour has received over slow play, they have to do something to improve it, and the only solution that will motivate a player to hurry up is to give penalty strokes. Yes, you know, like I said earlier, what a novel idea to enforce the rule!

Given this week is the 20th year anniversary, I can’t think of a better time. My only concern is some poor unknown player is going to get Doug Barron’d.

A one-shot penalty is worth more than winning a tournament. Every player knows how costly one shot can be. One shot can decide your schedule because each shot counts throughout the year. Just ask Spencer Levin, who finished 31st on the 2011 PGA Tour money list.

Last season he had to call a stroke on himself when an outside agent caused his ball to move on the putting green. Turned out the disparity in prize money due to that one-shot penalty was worth the difference in finishing 31st and 30th on the money list. The top 30 receives huge perks, like being automatically exempt to the next season’s majors, most of the WGCs (no-cut, so free money), and all the invitationals, etc.

That all said, happy 20th anniversary of the last time a player was stroked for slow play! Bet Pruitt can still tell you exactly how much money in official money that cost him.

By the way, I’m a little tired of hearing about people compare their Saturday game with their buddies at their club to a PGA Tour event. I know it’s the only barometer we know how to measure, but this would fall under the bifurcation category.

(AP Photo/Chris O’Meara)