“The final group is finally on the back nine in the Valero Texas Open …”
Those were the words of NBC announcer Dan Hicks, some three hours after the threesome of Steven Bowditch, Matt Kuchar and Andrew Loupe all diligently pulled the proper club, checked the wind, took a few practice swings and smacked the first tee shots of their final round into the air. They were preceded by the telecast showing a graphic which explained potential slow play penalties, based on the fact that two of those three had already received warnings for a bad time and a few other groups were also on the clock.
The good news? Things got noticeably quicker from there.
Not quick enough, though.
Sunday afternoon appeared ripe for the first one-stroke penalty for slow play on the PGA Tour in nearly two decades. (Those issued last year to Guan Tianlang at the Masters and Hideki Matsuyama at the Open Championship came from other governing bodies.) After all, there’s a difference between slow and stagnant. This one was so halting that it felt like the entire leaderboard was on the clock; it was so deliberate that it took the final group about 5:32 to finish the round; it was so plodding that reaction to the pace overwhelmingly overshadowed Bowditch’s first career victory.
Consider it a perfect storm without the rain.
The TPC San Antonio track was set up tough with a scoring average well over par, it featured a one- to two-club wind, they were playing in threesomes and the resort course is never an easy walk.
But that’s not to make any excuses. There were also some interminably slow players on the leaderboard.
How slow? Johnny Miller said of Loupe, “If everyone on Tour played like him, I would stop commentating.” At one point, with Loupe assessing a putt on the 15th green, Bowditch appeared to be napping nearby. Or maybe he was just doing an impersonation of so many viewers on their living-room couches.
That’s because competitors and rules officials weren’t the only ones checking their watches. Discussions on social media, which during final rounds usually range from attempting to pick the winner to sharing thoughts on specific shots, were dominated by rancor and revulsion toward the pace. More than a few observers insisted they’d rather watch no golf than slow golf.
Therein lies a major problem for the game in general and the PGA Tour more specifically. If viewers dislike slow play but continue to tune in, there likely won’t be much change; if they start clicking to other pursuits, though, that’s where officials might have to – to steal a phrase – stop being polite and start getting real.
If there were any positives to come from Sunday’s pace of play, it’s that we can hope it becomes the tipping point toward proactive change. That might be wishful thinking – and I’m on record as writing that I’d rather watch professionals play better than faster – but sometimes you have to squint to see the silver lining.
Right now, slow play is the uninvited houseguest who won’t leave. But in its defense, nobody has tried to kick it out, either.
I’ve long believed that people shouldn’t bemoan a problem without offering a solution, but I don’t have one here. I know – the easy answer is for the PGA Tour to start issuing penalty strokes, which is actually part of its official rules, despite the fact that no penalty has been assessed since 1995.
That’s also the popular answer based on both public opinion and the membership as a whole. Hit 'em where it hurts, the idea states, and players will collectively speed up. Monetary fines haven’t helped alleviate the issue, so the answer must come in the form of discipline on the scorecard.
What I find ironic, though, is watching the last two weeks of the NCAA basketball tournament and so often hearing cries about officials determining results. Which leads to the problem with assessing penalties for slow play: There can’t be selective enforcement. You can’t assess a penalty to a notoriously slow player on Thursday morning, but fail to give one on the final hole Sunday afternoon to the leader who gets a second bad time while under the gun.
Let’s say for example (and it’s hardly a perfect one, because he wasn’t much of an offender) that Bowditch took a little too long over one of his putts on the final hole and it was his second bad time of the day. The feel-good story of his first career victory would have instead led to a playoff.
It would be like a ticky-tack blocking foul whistled in the first minute of a hoops game similarly being called on the final play to decide the outcome.
We don’t like it when officiating determines results in other sports. Those asking for it in golf might want to be careful what they wish for, because it could open a Pandora’s Box as to how tournaments are officiated.
Sunday afternoon may not have been the slowest round in PGA Tour history, but it sure seemed like it. Once again, the pace-of-play issue reared its ugly head. And once again, we’re left wondering when – or if – we’ll ever see the repercussions of such negligence.