Dr. Riccio offers 'The truth about slow play'

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The Truth About Slow Play: Why clubs, players and the entire golf industry need to improve it in order to set the pace and grow the game

By LUCIUS RICCIO, PH.D.

(Note: This article originally appeared in The Met Golfer. It is reprinted with their permission.)

Does a five-hour round make you crazy? Does slow play make you want to bend the shaft of your 3-iron around the heads of the group in front of you? While many issues seem to split the golf world into two camps (one set of rules vs. two; the ball should be ratcheted back vs. it should go longer; anchoring the putter is okay vs. it is evil), the subject of slow play brings all golfers together like no other. Everyone associated with the game understands that slow play is killing the enjoyment of the game and the levels of participation. A 2005 study by former USGA technical director Frank Thomas found it to be the No. 1 obstacle to growing the game.

And yet, if you ask anyone what causes slow play, almost universally the answer is, “the group ahead.” What’s the solution? Some say walk faster. Some say give short putts or make the slow players tee off later in the day. Some say pick up when you’re out of the hole. Some say wave up on par 3s. Others say “tee it forward.”

There is no shortage of suggestions. Everyone has an opinion. But what really works? What will really make a difference? Unfortunately many people believe slow play is somewhat like the weather, which everyone complains about but can’t change. However, something can be done about slow play. The big obstacle to correcting the problem has been the lack of a thorough understanding of what causes slow play. I’ve used my background in statistics and analytics to conduct the research needed to provide that understanding. My research, doing hundreds of simulations and statistical analyses, indicates that the problem of slow play is far more complicated than any of those simple answers. In fact, the data indicate the answer to the question “who is responsible for slow play?”: We all are! Yes, everyone involved in the game contributes in some small (or large) way to slow play. It’s not just “the other guy.”

Some of the causes are within our powers as golfers. Some are not. Some are determined by course management, but not all. Some are caused by course architects and their designs without them knowing it. But no one is free from responsibility.

Dean Knuth, former USGA director of handicapping and now Golf Digest contributing editor, says that in a round of golf, we “play golf” (swing the club) for about 60 minutes and walk for about two hours. Everything else is waiting.

What causes all that waiting? In looking for the answers, I applied factory physics to golf. All factories consist of processes which, when provided with the right resources, produce finished products. In our golf analogy, each hole is an operation and each group of four golfers is a work-in-process product. In factory physics, the time it takes one unit of product to go from raw input to a finished product is called throughput time. In golf, the throughput time is the time it takes one group to play their full round. Cycle time is the time between successive outputs, or completed products, of a factory. In golf, that would be the time between successive groups finishing the 18th hole. Both measures can be defined for each hole as well as the whole course. The capacity of a factory is its maximum production per hour or per day. The lowest capacity operation limits the capacity of the entire factory, and is called the bottleneck. The input rate should not be more than the capacity of the bottleneck. If it is, long waits build up in the factory. All of these have a direct application to the problem at hand.

To explain how this relates to golf, I have divided the major causes of pace problems into three categories: individual player and group behaviors, course management decisions and designer plans. I will discuss them separately, but keep in mind they are all linked. There is no simple silver bullet solution. A solution will only come when we recognize the contribution of each.



The Players

This is the most obvious starting point. Without question a slow player slows down a group and a slow group slows down the whole course. A group can’t finish a hole until the slowest player finishes and a slow group sets the pace for every group behind.

Solution: As an individual, move to your own ball at a speed of at least 3 miles per hour (100 yards a minute) and be ready to hit when it is your turn. At that point, take no more than 45 seconds to hit. Take no more than three minutes to look for a lost ball or to take relief. As a group, your group should take no more than three minutes to clear the tee, fairway landing area (once there) and the green complex. Not moving to your own ball and being ready to hit will add up to one hour to your group’s pace. It is obvious that the slowest group determines the pace for all groups behind. But my research shows something not obvious and more important. If every group was a “fast group” overall but had one or two slow holes (a lost ball, a three putt green etc.), the pace for the course would be them sum of the slow holes for each group on the course. As such, each group, when they have a slow hole, has contributed to a slow pace. This is because it is harder to play fast than to play slowly. It is hard to make up the time you lost especially if while you are trying to make it up, the group ahead is having their slow hole.

Solution: Recognize that you and your group are probably part of the problem even if most of the time you are playing quickly. Do whatever you can to make up for lost time and keep up with the group ahead.


Course Architects

The USGA slope system was a huge advance in golf handicapping in the early 1980s, and was developed with the MGA playing a lead role in refining and implementing the new system. Unfortunately course developers decided that to get their money’s worth, they needed to build courses with high slope ratings. As such, architects were pressured to design courses or make renovations with lots of difficulty factors. The harder the course, the more strokes need to be taken, and the longer it takes to play. More difficulty, more lost balls, more time to search. Often these new courses had long walks between green to tee, just adding time but no additional golfing enjoyment. The original Rules of Golf written in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1744 said “ye shall tee your ball no further than a club from the previous hole.” Boy, have times changed. I estimate that modern course design has added 30 to 60 minutes per round.

Solution: Never play a course where the slope rating is more than 142 minus your handicap index. Play it all the way forward if you can’t follow this rule.



Clubs and Courses

Now let’s look at the group that can arguably have the largest impact on pace of play: the leadership at clubs and courses, which for the purposes of this exercise I refer to as “course managers.” There are two avenues by which golf course superintendents, green chairmen, head pros, and other leaders at clubs and courses affect pace of play: First is setup – the height of the rough, the speed of the greens, the tee marker placements all can add up to more shots and more time.

Solution: Course managers should monitor the time it takes for groups of all ability levels to play each hole and make adjustments to their course setup. They should study the USGA’s Course Pace of Play Rating Manual (developed by Knuth) and use consultants such as Bill Yates or Steven Southard who study such concerns. The MGA is also a resource to learn about the pace ratings at courses across the Met Area. The second issue with club personnel is far more complicated, because tee time intervals are the main culprit to slow play. Course managers are naturally inclined to set tee intervals which are too short. They “please” more groups by getting more onto the course. But in the same way in which too many cars on a highway actually slow everyone down, too many groups cause the pace to deteriorate significantly. My research shows that a tee interval shorter than the time it takes to play the longest par 3 will cause the pace to increase well beyond a reasonable four-hour amount. In fact, a four-and-a-half or five-hour round is guaranteed by a too short tee interval no matter how well the individual players and groups play. There is nothing the golfers can do to overcome the fact that there are too many groups on the course. For groups of four, tee intervals less than 10 minutes almost certainly cause pace problems. So why do the course managers do it? Because the pressure to bring in more green fee revenue (at least in the short run) by stuffing more groups on the course is simply too great. Spreading out the tee intervals to a length which would allow a four-hour round would require about a 15 to 20 percent increase in green fees to compensate for the lower number of paying customers. It is a terrible predicament.

Solution: Advocate for proper tee intervals even if it means an increase in green fees. So what will it take for the four-hour round to become the maximum, not the minimum, acceptable pace? There are clubs and courses that have figured out the many factors that must be in place for this to happen. It takes a good course setup, with the proper tee interval, with golfers who move quickly to their own ball, are ready to hit when it is their turn, don’t waste time looking for lost or water logged balls, who pick up the pace when they fall behind, and recognize that we are all in it together. It’s complicated. It will take a comprehensive effort. But there is a hierarchy to the plan. Doing it out of sequence will make subsequent efforts fruitless. 

Here’s the plan:

1. Encourage course managers to set up courses that are challenging but not brutal (pace sensitive.)

2. Set tee intervals appropriately.

3. Institute wave-up policies on par threes.

4. Train and reward all golfers in proper individual pace behaviors.

5. Provide feedback on group behaviors. It’s important to note that this sequence is the reverse of what most people’s intuition would tell them. That has to be recognized or we will make no progress.

One last thing: If you want to be part of the solution, join the Three/45 Golf Association (Three45golf.org) to show your support for pace of play advocacy. The numbers are relevant in multiple ways: We need all golfers to walk or ride the course at an average of 3 miles per hour, and take no more than 45 seconds on any single stroke (not too terribly fast), in order for a round to take about 3 hours and 45 minutes. According to my research, we will only make improvements when we band together and recognize we are all part of the problem, and therefore all part of the solution.


Lou Riccio is a senior lecturer at Columbia Business School in New York, where he has taught since 1995. His passion for golf has fueled his research and his résumé throughout his career. In February, Riccio won the inaugural Shotlink Intelligence Prize from the PGA Tour, and in the past has served on the MGA Executive Committee and the USGA Handicap Research Team. After earning a Ph.D. in engineering from Lehigh University, Riccio was instrumental in helping the USGA develop the Slope Rating System, and received the Ike Grainger Award in recognition of 25 years of volunteer service to the USGA. Riccio is a contributor of statistics-based instruction articles to Golf Digest.