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Slowwww Play!

by | Mar 30, 2024


Slow play is the curse of playing the game of golf.  Slow play has nothing to do with the game itself but is perpetrated by its participants for a number of different reasons.

For some unknown and irrelevant reasons, the game of golf was meant to be played as 18 holes over a time period not to exceed four hours.  There is no generic source that I can find about this postulate.  There are a number of books and stories about how the game became 18 holes but I couldn’t find anything about a rule or standard that specifies the required duration of the golf round.   Who decided that 18 holes should/must be played in four hours?    It’s not really a rule but a guideline and it differs a bit all over the world.  In Scotland, four hours is probably unacceptably long whereas in Japan, there is no standard for the duration of a round, and it is considerably longer than four hours.

There is a myriad of factors that lead to or impact pace of play and it is difficult to gather a pareto of data to figure out how to cure slow play.  Pace of play for the player is a state of mind as to how the individual approaches the game and its pace.  The player should consider pace of play as a key element of golf etiquette.  Golf etiquette is also a series of guidelines and in some cases hard rules that govern pace of play.  A good example is the lost ball rule where a player has five minutes to find a ball instead of ten or twelve minutes, which can disrupt pace of play.

The first culprit in the slow play lane is the golf course itself and its management.  It should take 13 minutes a hole to play in 4 hours.  If you send a foursome off the first tee every 8 minutes, it won’t be very long that you have a clogged golf course irrespective of how the players are playing.  As soon as one group decides to look for a lost ball for 10 minutes, you instantly have a golf round where the player is going to be waiting on every shot.  The real annoying part of this is that the golf course is endorsing a standard pace of play but really has no intention of following through on the rule.  At Pebble Beach, all the practice balls have 4:30 printed on them to remind the player that the standard pace of play for Pebble Beach is four hours and 30 minutes.  I would bet that less than 5% of the rounds at Pebble Beach are completed in less than four hours and thirty minutes.  When you pay $600 to play a golf course, the player feels entitled to get what they paid for–in this case, they’ll play at a pace that suits them without regard for anyone else on the course.  My opinion shaped by experience is that the average round at Pebble is close to six hours.  Pebble Beach is only one example of the slow play problem as many other great venues have similar issues with slow play.  Another horrible cause of slow play is the golf course that disallows carts on the fairways.  In this case, the player marches back and forth to the cart and sometimes will be completely unprepared with the wrong club and return again to the cart.  This problem is directly the fault of the course that should ensure that golf carts can enforce the 90 degree rule at approaching the player’s shot.  The 90 degree rule will provide a path for the player to reach his ball and protect the area of fairway that the golf cart has to traverse.  At certain courses, the player will actually spend more time going back and forth to the golf cart than if the player simply walked himself.  This situation exists at all the Pebble Beach courses and the best idea is to employ a caddy to drive the cart and do the running back and forth to the golf cart.  This is a significant time saver and should be employed but unfortunately mandatory caddy programs are not used on these courses.

Another significant slow play culprit is the PGA professional.  You might wonder how players that hit golf shots so well can play slowly.  The answer is usually found on the putting green, whereby the professional has to read his putt from every angle imaginable and recently adopted an approach of stepping over the putting line to read the putt.  All of these techniques are adopted by the low handicap amateur, regular fee player and high handicapper alike,  especially when there is some money on the line and the putting green begins to resemble a prayer service.  Amateur tournaments and even scramble events take over five hours to play a round and sometimes six.  Amateurs love to behave like professionals and strutting around the green doesn’t really reduce the number of three putts that will be recorded during the high handicap round.  The professional could make a major dent in the slow play problem if they wanted to but pace of play to the professional is almost irrelevant as these players are playing for their livelihood and feel that need all of these techniques are important to their competitiveness.

Slow play is a global problem and one of the slowest places on the planet is in Japan.  The reasons for slow play in Japan are complicated and have little or nothing to do with entitlement.  In Japan, a round of golf is considered a social event.  It usually takes a few hours to actually get to the golf course, have some breakfast, get no practice balls and head to the first tee for three hours.  At the turn, there is a mandatory full course Japanese lunch, which takes an hour followed by a quick nap for the appointed back nine tee time.  Three hours later, the round is mercifully over and its back to the club for fresh peas and beer.  Nine hours have passed and you are totally exhausted-you will sleep well tonight as approximately 12 hours have elapsed.  The complete opposite experience will occur in Scotland and most, but not all, of England where slow play is not tolerated by the players themselves.  The clubs don’t really have to enforce any standards-a four hour round in Scotland is determined to be “slow.”

Entitlement behavior is a significant problem for slow play.  The current societal norm is that rules are meant to be followed by someone else.  You experience entitlement behavior every day as drivers that use their cell phones while driving is okay for them to do it, although it puts the society at risk as the number of traffic deaths from distracted driving is well documented.    If you want to spend 10 minutes looking for a ball or a minute or two lining up a putt, then the groups in back of you can wait.  The concept of staying a hole ahead of the group behind is generally lost on most players.  You’ve paid your green fee and you’ll play at whatever pace suits you without regard for the rest of the players on the golf course.

Just as the society is not going to stop driving with their cell phones in hand, the gods of golf are not going to be able to solve the problem of slow play.  The most positive thing that I believe can be done is if the golf course/club enforces its slow play guidelines and respects the right of all players on the course.  An example of is that I played in a tournament in Bandon Dunes where a slow play penalty stroke would be assessed if the round exceeded four hours–no exceptions or no excuses. All players were walking with caddies.   It was amazing that with this rule in place for the competition, no penalty strokes were charged to anyone in the 72 person field.  There are a number of private/public courses that enforce their slow play guidelines because the general membership believes in the guidelines and the courses are monitored by assistant professionals not retirees.

Slow play will continue to be a curse that the player will want to avoid.  It solely depends on attitude and the willingness to do the right thing for all the players on the golf course.  Not very likely–have you seen the driver stopped next to you for that red light–with head bowed texting?






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