Slow Play Scourge

Slow play is killing the game of golf.

Used to be that you could pretty much count on a round of golf taking four hours. Now it leaks into four and a half, five, five and a half hour rounds. Nobody has time for that anymore.

Some of it comes from too many players on too few tee times. Some of it comes from cart path restrictions; out and back, out and back. Miss your long iron into the green and now you have to trudge back to the cart to grab a short iron you never thought you’d need. And do you drive the cart up or do you walk the diagonal back to your ball? Some of it comes from bad play. As the old saying goes amongst course marshals, “You can’t speed up bad play.”

It’s also become a major issue on the Tour. In fairness, the wind was howling yesterday, but the first round at the Honda Classic in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida took five and a half to six hours and some of the field had to come back this morning to finish.

The most famous slow-play snub was in the 2005 Booz Allen Classic played at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Maryland. Fast-playing Rory Sabbatini was paired with very-very-slow-playing Ben Crane in the final round. Due to Crane’s slow play, the twosome was put on the clock by the Tour officials.

When that happens, you are literally timed by a Tour official with a stopwatch. If you don’t get a shot off within 40 seconds when it’s your turn, you’ve accumulated a bad time. When I was Monday qualifying, if you got two bad times, it was a one-stroke penalty. I was once paired with a slow player in ferocious winds in Naples. We ended up on the clock because of his deliberateness. I had an 8-iron into the green, the wind abated, I switched to the 9 and ended up with a bad time. And once you have it, it doesn’t go away until the round is over. You don’t have time to gauge how you’re doing. Get to the ball, get the yardage, pull the club, hit the shot, move along.

So when Sabbatini and Crane got to the 17th hole, Sabbatini was already furious. When he hit his approach shot long into the hazard over the back of the green, it was too much. As Crane began dithering over the facts of his shot, Sabbatini began cheating down the fairway to the green. Still Crane dithered. Arriving at the green, Sabbatini saw Crane still wasn’t ready and walked to the back of the green to where his ball went into the water. Crane finally hit his shot. As soon as Crane’s ball stopped, Sabbatini took his relief, hit his chip shot up onto the green, finished the hole and stormed to the 18th tee as a statement of his displeasure.

Sabatini was roundly vilified, but having similarly been a victim, I’m sympathetic.

The reason for all of this slow play is that players don’t trust themselves.

It begins with teachers who coach the pre-shot routine. Don’t pull the club until it’s your turn because pulling the club is part of the routine. Once you pull the club, if there’s any doubt, put the club back in the bag. The routine should time out from the time you pull the club, to the pondering from behind the ball, to the stride next to the ball, to the practice swing(s), to address, to the waggles, to the looks at the target, to the last waggle and the swing.

If you trusted yourself, you’d get your yardage, evaluate the uphill/downhill/wind issues, pull the club while looking at the flag, set up to the ball while looking at the flag, take a practice swing, address the ball while looking at the flag, get settled, take a last look and swing. It’s what you do in practice rounds.

The same thing on the putting green. J.B. Holmes has developed such an excruciating pre-shot routine on the greens it’s appalling. I never noticed that about him until I followed him at the World Match Play Championship. Not only does he plumb bob every putt three or four times—each deliberation taking ponderously long—he actually wiggles his lower body on each look to (presumably) make sure that his plumb bobbing platform (his own body!) is stable.

If you trusted yourself, you would walk up onto the green with your mind empty and calm. You would begin to take in the line of the putt as you marked and cleaned your ball. On your turn, you would replace your ball and squat behind the ball to refine your first look. As it begins to come to you, you completely relax your gaze to be able to see the nuance and subtlety of the line. Once you see it, as you rise from the putt and evaluate how much macro typography (mountains, valleys, bodies of water) will affect the putt, you never take your eyes off the line; you still hold it in your relaxed gaze. And still as you address the ball. And in your mind’s eye as you stroke the ball.

If you trusted yourself.

Hopefully, these slowpoke PGA Tour players, minds full with details, will go back to what they were doing when they were kids. And set a good example for the game.

When our slowpoke amateurs—and we all know who they are—begin to see that there is no real payoff to their ponderous, exhausting deliberations, indeed, that the best players in the world have found them unnecessary, perhaps we’ll all leave the game we love as we found it. How I found it was as a freewheeling, enlivening, enriching game. There’s still hope.

But I fear that it will take the PGA Tour imposing penalty strokes after two bad times in a round rather than the current policy of a $20,000 fine after ten bad times in a season. Ten! If you are incurring real-time penalty strokes for your real-time bad behavior, that affects your real-time income…and FedExCup points…and World Golf Ranking points. Then something might change.

And the Tour players’ vaunted images and examples that we all hold of them will finally be complete.

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