The USGA: Aggressively Raising Slow Play Consciousness

Well, the world of golf has been talking about slow play forever, but most of the talking has been from frustrated golfers voting with their feet. The number of rounds is down significantly.

And now the USGA is talking emphatically about slow play awareness and what better place to highlight that than at this week’s U.S. Open at Merion. Here’s the crux of the problem as outlined by the USGA in Wednesday’s press conference:

Pace of play has been an issue for decades, but it’s now become one of the most significant threats to the health of the game.  Five hour plus rounds are common and they’re incompatible with modern life.

Beyond the time involved, poor pace of play saps the fun from the game, takes too much time, frustrates players, and discourages future play.  In a recent study by the National Golf Foundation, 91 percent of serious golfers reported that they’re bothered by slow play and say that it detracts from their golf experience.

More than 70 percent said that they believe that pace of play is worsened over time and over half admitted to walking off the course due to frustration over a marathon round.  As these numbers demonstrate, the golf community needs to act to address pace of play issues and they need to act now and they need to act more than ever.

And they’re throwing their considerable weight behind investigating the cause of slow play with a “scientific model.” In business, computer simulation models are used all the time to measure the flow of goods through a warehouse, a new car through the assembly line or the flow of people through turnstiles and attractions at theme parks. As a Graduate Assistant, I assisted one of my professors in modelling the booking process at the City of Miami Jail to determine the optimum number of corrections officers.

Now, the USGA is building a model for golf:

Earlier this year the scientists at the USGA’s research and test center initiated an ambitious project to create the first ever dynamic pace of play model.  A model based on real data applicable to both competitive and recreational golf.

When this model is completed later this summer, it will allow us to quantify the specific influences that impact pace of play:  (1.) course design, (2.) course setup, (3.) course management, and (4.) golfers themselves.

And this content will allow us to advise architect, club owners, club managers, course superintendents, golf professionals, and golfers themselves, about how to promote a better pace of play.

It’s one thing to have an excellent scientific model, but if a tree falls in a forest, does it make a sound if nobody hears it?

At our annual meeting I referenced the PGA of America’s vigorous support of these efforts.  And we’ve now expanded this partnership to include the R&A, the PGA Tour, the LPGA Tour, the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America, the Club Managers Association, the National Golf Course Owners Association, the American Society of Golf Course Architects, and many state and regional golf associations.

They also received the support of a couple of big megaphones, Golf Digest and the Golf Channel:

The momentum that is now developing across the industry seriously to address pace of play issues was also evident in May when Golf Digest, together with the USGA and the PGA of America, launched the Nine is Fine initiative.  A program to encourage and promote nine hole rounds of golf as a complete, fun, golf experience.

And more recently, Golf Channel dedicated the month of June as pace of play awareness month.  We applaud the leadership of Mike McCarley and his team at the Golf Channel for joining with us to take an aggressive public approach to the pace of play problem.

And for those who blame the dawdling tour players who agonize over every angle and blade of grass on the greens, they thought of that too:

Over recent months we have also been actively engaged with the professional tours and elite amateur competitions as to how to identify best practices and potential solutions for improving pace of play in non‑recreational golf.

A particular focus of the discussion has been the USGA’s Checkpoint System that has already been successfully used in USGA amateur championships.

The Checkpoint System is a number of clock checkpoints on the course where the players self-police their pace of play. It can include players adding penalty strokes for failing to get to the clock on time. You want tough? See this 2-point checkpoint system for the Florida State Golf Association Championship Pace of Play Policy.

But the point of all of this aggregate activity is to wake people up to the problem:

Importantly, our goal in all of this activity is to aggressively raise awareness among golfers and golf facility managers about pace of play issues and to provide accurate practical information that offers solutions.

As with all chronic issues, ladies and gentlemen, awareness is essential.  Helping people understand the causes of a problem, the potential solutions to the problem, and the collective effort that is required in response.

How to do that? With the help of Rodney Dangerfield’s obnoxious character, Al Czervik, in the iconic golf movie, Caddyshack, of course. Here’s a 51-second clip:

So now, “While We’re Young!” has become the clarion call to battle the slow play scourge. And to get it out there, the USGA has come up with five public service spots featuring Tiger Woods, Arnold Palmer, Clint Eastwood, Annika Sorenstam, Butch Harmon and Paula Creamer. The ladies deliver their lines while tugging at imaginary neckties the way Dangerfield did in his comedy act.

Here’s the USGA “While We’re Young” Microsite with the five 30-second spots. Tiger’s is the first one up and Butch and Paula’s is the fifth.

[They are] a series of fun, inviting, PSAs that don’t chastise, they entertain.  The purpose of our spots is not to lecture, but to relate, not to admonish, but to wink and to engage.

While We’re Young.  The goal of this campaign is to rally the golf be public to demand effective solutions from our industry and pace of play issues.  Pace of play is an epidemic and the moment has come to attack it in a fun, innovative and cooperative way.

All well and good you might say, but what practical solutions are there once golfers’ awareness is raised? It all comes down to the four major factors that affect play: (1.) course design, (2.) course setup, (3.) course management, and (4.) golfers themselves.

So we have to look at each of these four areas to actually have a practical impact on pace of play.

Our test center is now actually trying to quantify the different factors that actually affect pace of play, but we already know some of them.  All right.  We know that at many golf facilities we’re sending players out on the golf course faster than we can get them around on the golf course so we create bottlenecks.  Our starting time intervals are shorter than the time that it takes to play a hole.

And we believe our test center modeling project will show this, but if you look at par‑3s, par‑3s are the first bottleneck that almost always arises on a golf course because it takes 12 to 15 minutes to play a par‑3 for a group and yet we’re sending players out on the golf course at eight minute intervals, nine minute intervals, 10 minute intervals.  So what we’re going to do through the test center project is help develop a model that will allow a specific facility to determine the right intervals to send people out on a golf course.

We’re also going to see in the area of golf course setup the types of golf course setup that creates bottlenecks and slows pace of play; rough heights, green speeds, hole locations.

In the area of golf course architecture we’re going to be working with the golf course architects to look not just at the length of the course but of course we have our “Tee It Forward” program to get people to play from the right tees but also the number and location of hazards.

As our golf community has an increasing number of seniors playing in it, and we’re trying to get women and juniors in the game, our golf course architecture is a little out of sync with that because we have a lot of forced carries, whether it be off the tee, or from the tee into greens.

These are the things that we’re going to try to quantify and put together as a sense of not only best practices, but an effort to be able to work with individual facilities to identify the things that are practical for them to do within their budgets with the specific design of their golf course.  And we think that will have a significant impact on pace of play.

Obviously on player behavior, a player could already go on and tee it from the right tee, move to your ball, be ready to play your shot when it’s your turn, put your bag in the right place when you get up to the green, have read your putt before it is your turn to play, putt the ball, and do your score on the next hole, not standing on the green.

There are lots of practical simple things that cumulatively can do a lot to reduce the amount of time it takes to play a round.

This is a good overview of the pace of play campaign, but there is so much more meat on the bone from the press conference that was too extensive to include here. To read the entire transcript — which was quite engaging and hopeful — you can find it here on the USGA’s U.S. Open site.

Finally, among those further readings, this is the question and answer that excited me:

Q.  Just had a question on your pace of play in competition. A lot of your qualifying sites for your events players don’t have caddies or the courses are poorly marked with yardages.  I haven’t heard anything about range finders.  Might this pace of play lead the USGA to reconsider to start using range finders in its qualifying competitions?

USGA President, Glen Nager:  Yes.

Yes! Finally some common sense!

And whataya know, it was while we were young.

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One Response to The USGA: Aggressively Raising Slow Play Consciousness

  1. Deb Waitkus says:

    The USGA’s “While We’re Young!” campaign is terrific! Awareness is the key and the campaign is fabulous start.

    As Bill Rand notes in his 6/13/13 blog, there are “four major factors that affect play: (1.) course design, (2.) course setup, (3.) course management, and (4.) golfers themselves.” The :30 spots featuring golf notables target the golfers. The Tee if Forward campaign also targets the golfers – encouraging players to taste success by playing from the appropriate set of tees (based on ability rather than ego).

    The National Women’s Golf Alliance (NWGA) is committed to helping golf facilities address course design and course set up so that golf course playability is in-line with pace of play expectations – while we’re young!

    Kudos to all!