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Nicklaus a slow player in his day

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Glen Day was sitting in the back of the meeting room during a mandatory players meeting at The Players Championship in 1995. He was listening to PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem extoll the virtues of Jack Nicklaus, who happened to be sitting a few seats down.

“If you follow the example of Jack Nicklaus,” Finchem said, “you cannot possibly go wrong in golf or in life.”

Day couldn’t resist. He leaned over to Nicklaus and said, “Gee Mr. Nicklaus, I was following your example a few weeks ago, and I got a fine and a one-stroke penalty for it.”

Nicklaus cracked up. A few weeks earlier, Day had been fined and assessed a stroke penalty for slow play. It can be argued that Nicklaus may not have invented slow play, but he certainly perfected it. A year earlier, while playing in his final U.S. Open, Arnold Palmer had talked about the brutally slow pace of play on the first day.

“It took us almost 5 1/2 hours to play a round of golf,” he said. “Back in the 60s, even when Jack was at his absolute slowest, we’d play in 4 1/2 at most.”

Nicklaus was slow in the 60s. Day, whose nickname has been ‘All,’ because of his deliberate pace, played more slowly in the 90s. As it happens, the stroke penalty he received for emulating Nicklaus 17 years ago is the last time a Tour player was assessed a one-stroke penalty during a tournament.

That isn’t because pace-of-play has picked up. In fact, as impossible as it seems, the first and second rounds routinely last well into their sixth hour on Tour, and weekend rounds often take more than 4 hours – even in twosomes.

Ten years after Day’s penalty, Rory Sabbatini got so fed up with Ben Crane’s turtle-like pace at the Booz Allen Classic that he simply left him behind on the 17th hole. Sabbatini has a temper, and he likes to play at a lightning-fast pace. What he did was rude – but understandable. He had played with Crane for three days that week, and he cracked.

Crane admitted afterward that he needed to play faster. And he has. The rules officials, who nicknamed him “the anchor” years ago, all say he’s no longer close to being the slowest player on Tour. But he’s anything but fast.

“To be honest, you’d have to be stupid to get a stroke penalty under our rules,” said Mark Russell, the Tour’s vice president of rules and competition. “First, your group has to be put on the clock for being out of position. Then, if you’re being timed and you get a bad time, you get a warning. It’s only if you’re still out of position and you get another bad time that you get a stroke penalty. That just never happens.”

Except it did happen this past Sunday – but not on the PGA Tour. It happened to Morgan Pressel during her semifinal match against Azahara Munoz in the Sybase Match Play Championships. Munoz and Pressel had been put on the clock and, since there’s no further warning on the LPGA, Pressel was told on the 13th tee that she had just lost the 12th hole because she had exceeded the time limit. That turned a 3-up lead into a 1-up lead, and Munoz ended up winning the match.

The timing of the bad time rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. There were only four golfers on the course, and Pressel and Munoz were in the second match, so they weren’t holding anybody up. That said, if the LPGA wanted to deliver a message on slow play, it certainly did that. What’s a bit unfair is that Pressel is not a slow player habitually; Munoz apparently is. But if you’re told you’re on the clock and you dawdle, no one can say you haven’t been warned.

Such a thing would never happen on the PGA Tour. Once players are told by a rules official that they are out of position and on the clock, they almost always pick up their pace and, according to rules officials, usually play better golf.

More often than not, it’s one player in the group who causes the problem, but sometimes it can be two or even three players meandering. Kevin Na is not the only player on Tour who plays as if he’s hoping his round will be called off by darkness. When it is just one player, the other player or players are likely to let him know they aren’t happy to be on the clock. They will, in most cases, close ground on the group in front of them quickly and be taken off the clock.

But that’s too late. That one slow group has already backed up the entire golf course, and it is almost impossible to rectify. Finchem uses the “it’s impossible to have 26 groups on 18 holes,” argument to explain the paralysis that takes over on Thursdays and Fridays.

There’s something to that, but there’s still no excuse for the early groups to take as long as they do to play, and if they picked things up and got off the golf course, everyone else could play a little faster. If everyone was moving faster, slower players would find themselves out of position sooner and be subjected to being timed more often.

That still doesn’t solve the ultimate problem: which is in the rule. One warning – being put on the clock – should be enough. If a player doesn’t pick up his pace, the way Pressel didn’t, hit him with a stroke penalty.

“The problem with that,” Russell said, “is that sometimes the guy who gets the bad time isn’t the guy who got the group put on the clock.”

Well, that’s really too bad. It isn’t as if the player doesn’t know he’s on the clock – he does. And if a player gets a stroke penalty for being on the clock and another player got him put on the clock, maybe he’ll get angry enough at that player that the slow guy will give some thought to picking things up in the future.

Finchem doesn’t think penalizing players will be a deterrent to slow play. Why not? What could be more embarrassing? And, as Tiger Woods points out, it can potentially hurt them where it matters most: in the wallet – immediately, not at the end of the year if they somehow receive 10 bad times and receive a $20,000 fine, which is little more than a behind-closed-doors wrist slap.

What’s more, what has the Tour got to lose by toughening the rule and penalizing players on the course? Sure, the first victims will be angry, but it will get their attention right away.

Most importantly, it will get everyone’s attention. Nicklaus first came on Tour 50 years ago. It’s way past time for the Tour to figure out a way to stop so many players from emulating him.