Dirty Little Secret


On Tuesday Washington Naitonals’ prospect-tuned-promise keeper Stephen Strasburg accomplished a rare professional sports double, exceeding the hype with his 7-inning, 2-run, 14-strikeout performance and doing so in a brisk 2 hours, 19 minutes.

Strasburg’s gem was perfection condensed, reversing a trend in Major League Baseball of drawn-out games that last four hours, or more. If only golf could be so unfortunate.

On Sunday at Muirfield Village Rickie Fowler, one of the PGA Tour’s fastest players, teed off at 12:45 p.m. (ET) and didn’t putt out for the silver medal until almost 6 p.m., and – all things considered – it wasn’t a terribly sluggish day by Tour standards, and that’s a shame.

Players like Fowler, and Lucas Glover and Joe Ogilvie before him, arrive on Tour with every tool to succeed, including an accelerator. Clemson coach Larry Penley once said that when Glover, who played golf for Clemson, and Ogilvie, a Duke grad, were paired together at college events it was an oddity when there weren’t two golf balls in the air at the same time.

But, like Glover and Ogilvie before him, Fowler will learn to slow down. He must if he is going to survive on the Snail Tour, and that’s a shame.

The pace of play on Tour is glacial and instead of addressing the problem officials lob stop-gap solutions at the symptoms.

Fields are cut in the fall and spring because, they say, it’s impossible to get 156 players around in limited sunlight. A few years back officials initiated a secondary cut on Saturday because anything more than 78 players is unmanageable.

In response to slow play, the Tour’s solutions only seem to facilitate a more languid pace. On Sunday, before Fowler and eventual champion Justin Rose even teed off, Jack Nicklaus innocently seemed to stumble onto the root of the problem.

In 1962, Jack Nicklaus was on his way to his second consecutive victory at the Portland Open Invitational when Tour official Joe Black walked into the scoring trailer. “Add two (strokes) to your card,” Black told the young phenom.

Nicklaus won the Portland event, and more importantly he learned a valuable lesson.

“It was one of the best things that ever happened to me,” Nicklaus recalled. “They wouldn’t give you a slow-play penalty if you weren’t slow.”

When informed that Dillard Pruitt was the last Tour player to incur a one-stroke penalty for slow play at the 1992 Byron Nelson Classic Nicklaus’ reaction was equally telling.

“Really?” he asked, silent for a moment as he considered the grim statistic.

The current Tour policy regarding slow play is as convoluted as it is archaic. The first time a player is given a bad time there is no penalty, if it happens twice in a round he is assessed a one-shot penalty and a third time is worth two strokes. If a player is given two bad times in a single season they are fined $5,000 and a third and subsequent offenses cost $10,000 per.

Now there are plenty of fines, rumor is habitually slow players put aside a few grand just to budget for the inevitable, but it’s much easier to write a check than it is to “add two,” as Black would say.

“(A stroke penalty is) absolutely more impactful,” Nicklaus said.

The Golden Bear, who was penalized twice for slow play in his Hall of Fame career, in ’62 in Portland and again in ’65 in Houston, would know. Nicklaus’ run-in with Black was more than just a random encounter. It was an integral chapter in the development of the game’s great player.

“I always took my time and was meticulous over the shot, so I had to figure out how am I going to make up that time? Either walking (faster) or in my preparation,” Nicklaus said. “Joe told me not to change the way you play your shot, that’s you.”

In the name of historical accuracy it must be pointed out that Nicklaus became the game’s greatest player, but not the fastest. Some, in fact, only half jokingly say he invented slow play, or at least the modern version of it. But the essence of Nicklaus’ story became clear as Sunday’s threesomes inched their way around Muirfield Village.

Early enough in Nicklaus’ development, 1962 was his rookie year, Black took the time to teach him a lesson, likely a touchy endeavor considering just two years earlier the Golden Bear finished runner-up at the U.S. Open as an amateur.

“Joe (Black) said you have to be ready to play when it’s your turn,” Nicklaus remembered. “When I first started, like a lot of kids, I would sit there and watch everybody else play and then when it was my turn to play then I’d start getting my yardage.”

It’s a lesson nearly four decades old that seemed apropos on Sunday as Ricky Barnes, among the Tour’s more-deliberate types, stalked his 10-footer for birdie from every conceivable angle on the 14th hole.

Barnes missed the putt, for what it’s worth, and many of today’s younger players seem to be missing the point. There is no need for a Tour full of Fowlers and Glovers, but Black’s definition of “ready golf” should be as much a standard of play as fixing divots and signing scorecards.

“The pace that I played when I started there’s a ton of them that play at that pace right now. It’s pretty slow, of course they are also playing a course that’s 7,500 yards long compared to 6,700 yards when I played,” Nicklaus said. “(But) play could be faster.”

And with that Nicklaus entertained another 20 minutes of questions from the gathered scribes. It was, after all, a Tour Sunday so he had plenty of time. And that’s a shame.