The story in golf that’s slow to go away

When the Alamo City Golf Trail conducted a pace of play educational seminar on Saturday for participants in this year’s ACGT Tour events, it wouldn’t have been out of place for a video from Fuzzy Zoeller to be played. This video was a public-service announcement on the behalf of the USGA, and Zoeller was giving tips to speed up play.

This is not a part of the “While We’re Young” campaign launched last year that brought attention to slow play. This video was made more than 20 years ago, not long after Zoeller won the 1984 U.S. Open.

The only thing that takes longer than a round of golf, it seems, is the solution to ease slow play. San Antonio is no exception.

“If you’re not playing on a restricted-access course or a private club, you’re going to experience a pace of play situation,” La Cantera director of golf Steve Shields said.

The USGA announced an effort last year focusing on pace-of-play issues. When it conducted a meeting in November that was reported by Golfweek and other publications, the USGA invited Bill Yates to speak. Yates has been hired by a number of golf properties to conduct an on-sight analysis and suggest methods to bring proper pace to those courses. His work has been featured on Golf Channel.

One of his more notable suggestions on the slow-play dilemma at the USGA meeting in November was this: “Management has the largest responsibility. Players are second.” He’s consistent; in the Golf Channel video, he said the plan of action “falls back on the lap of the management team.”

While it appears no one is willing to urge President Obama along during his rather deliberate five-hour rounds (an executive with the Pacific Links golf-club membership company was quoted in a New York Times article that the pace of such a round is “the way it’s supposed to be played”), there has been action to encourage a steady pace of play at some properties in the San Antonio area.

The first pop-up item on the La Cantera website is a banner regarding time par of 4 1/2 hours at Troon Golf properties. “We want golfers to know our expectation before they tee off,” Shields said, who adds that player progress is monitored on a GPS system with results that can be shown to golfers on a printout. The system has shown tangible results at La Cantera’s sister properties in the Troon Golf system where it’s been reported that rounds are being completed from 10-16 minutes faster than before the initiative started, and Shields said “My gut feeling is we’ve got improvement on certain days” at La Cantera.

But there’s no need for technology to help. When golfers take their green-fee receipt to the starter at Northcliffe Golf Club, the starter marks down the starting time. “So we’ve got it on a clipboard,” head pro Dave Roberts said, “and our marshals can let golfers know, if needed, where they should be on the golf course at all times.”

Another item found in the reports from the USGA’s November meeting came from Jeff Hall, a managing director at the USGA. “When you go to the players (about slow play),” Hall said, “by and large they will cooperate.”

Sometimes, they’re not given a choice. Shields said that if a group is chronic in its slow play at La Cantera and is holding up pace behind it, management will direct the group to move up on a par-4 or par-5 hole and play it as a par-3. At Northcliffe, Roberts said there are rare occasions when slow groups that cannot heed the advice to speed up are taken off the course and given “rain checks” to come back and play the course when it’s not so busy.

“People have paid to play our course, that’s true,” Roberts said. “But they have paid to play our course by our rules. We want to have a ‘Cheers’ type of course — where everybody knows your name — so we don’t want to be condescending about this. We want to make you happy, and the guy behind your group happy.”

At the ACGT Tour events, it was announced that players could be penalized a stroke — or more — for slow play. Pace will be monitored through a “check station” system. The AJGA began to use a check-station system at its events in 2002, and rounds that have taken more than 4 1/2 hours to complete now are coming in at close to 4:20. The AJGA uses six holes as timing stations, and players in groups that are repeat offenders with tardy times could be penalized.

“It’s tough to say that our Tour has a problem,” ACGT Tour commissioner Travis Salkowski said. “We’ve never once penalized anyone for slow play. We probably should have. So this is a major concern for us this year.”

ACGT Tour events took an average of 5 hours, 10 minutes last year according to Salkowski. He’s aiming for less than five hours, and he’ll get a quick chance to see if it becomes a reality when the ACGT Tour kicks off its season Saturday at Brackenridge Park.

During the pace of play seminar, ACGT officials showed two different videos of a foursome playing No. 1 at Cedar Creek Golf Course. The first version, with players hitting in intervals of between 20 to 30 seconds once they arrived at their fairway shots, took 8 minutes, 50 seconds to complete the hole.

“No one was rushing their pre-shot routines or changing the own idiosyncrasies, but everyone is moving and not standing and watching,” ACGT instructor Michael Freeman said. “But the second video (with slower play demonstrated) was very difficult to do. Painstaking.”

That second video showed that it took 16 minutes, 30 seconds to finish the same hole (almost four more minutes). Salkowski figured that if players shaved one minute off each hole that was played at last year’s pace, the goal of less than the five-hour round will be realized.

A tournament committee is in its rights to impose such measures as spelled out in the Rules of Golf, specifically “For the purpose of preventing slow play, the Committee may, in the conditions of competition, establish pace of play guidelines including maximum periods of time allowed to complete a stipulated round, a hole or a stroke.”

An effective pace-of-play solution for associations like the ACGT Tour has been offered by instructor Jim McLean from an interview in Golf Digest. When McLean was a head pro at a course in New York he said “a lot of rounds were taking five hours. (I was) asked me to bring rounds down to four hours, at any cost. (The course), perched above the Hudson River, is hilly and not an easy walk, but the board thought something had to be done. So we instituted a rule: The first time you play in more than four hours, you get a letter. The second time, you can no longer play until after 11 a.m. No excuses! The first year was tough. A few of the members were outraged at feeling hurried. But the second year, rounds came in under four hours. It became a huge point of pride among the membership. The peer pressure was enormous; slow players didn’t want to be identified as slow, and they picked up the pace. The effect on handicaps was nil: Everyone played as well or better, and they had a lot more fun. The shift toward faster play is going slowly.”

By slowly, McLean means slowly. The date he cites when he was head pro at the course? It was 1988. The idea of faster play can be slow to catch on.

— Tim Price


About longlostgolfer

This is the correspondent in San Antonio.
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