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Tour needs to impose harsh methods to curb slow play

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Late Saturday afternoon at TPC Sawgrass Kevin Na was saddled with a “bad time” on the 16th hole, a ruling he disputed saying his caddie’s shadow caused him to back off the shot and exceed the 60 seconds players are allotted.

Cue the open microphone: his caddie’s shadow wasn’t over the ball when Na started his pre-shot routine on the 16th . . . ba-da-boom.

To be fair, Na is hardly alone in his struggles with slow play. It’s just his high-profile tee times on Saturday and Sunday at The Players Championship broadcast his plight into homes around the globe in excruciatingly slow detail.

And before we dismiss the issue as a media-driven non-story, consider Tiger Woods’ take on the subject de jour.

“We have gotten slower on Tour. College has gotten just incredibly slow,” said Woods, who is normally reserved when it comes to Tour policy. “It's so bad that now we are giving the guys the ability to use lasers to try to speed up play, and they are still in 5:45, six (hours) plus (rounds).”

For Woods and most other Tour types the fix is simple, instead of accumulated fines and a complicated system of warnings, the circuit’s sluggish should be penalized a stroke every time they run afoul the official’s stopwatch.

Consider Na’s bad time on Saturday was a result of his group falling “out of position” relative to the group in front of them, but according to officials by the time he reached the 17th tee Na and Zach Johnson were “back in position,” and therefore not subject to timing.

It is the perfect example of a pace of play pencil whipping.

It’s also worth noting that it takes two bad times in a single round to be assessed a stroke penalty and, as one official pointed out, Na started Sunday’s final turn “fresh,” which seems to be at the heart of the slow-play issue.

Offenses are not cumulative when it comes to stroke penalties, only fines.

For example, players are fined $5,000 for their second bad time in a single year, $10,000 for a third violation and subsequent offenses. But that’s chump change when compared with the $49,000 it would have cost Na had he been docked a stroke penalty and tied for 10th instead of seventh at The Players.

Strokes are money,” Woods said. “What's the difference between first and second right now ($1.083 million)? I would take the $5,000 (penalty) over the ($1.083 million). But that's one shot, and that's the difference. That's what people don't realize is that one shot is so valuable out here.”

The Tour’s complicated policy at least partially explains why officials haven’t doled out a stroke penalty for slow play in over two decades. It’s a truth complicated by a collective lack of will on the part of officials to enforce the rules that are in place.

According to the Tour’s pace of play policy, “if a player is determined . . . to be unreasonably slow, he may be timed individually at the (Tour’s) discretion, regardless of whether his group is out of position.”

Translation: if the Tour wanted to crack down on slow play they could target the habitually sluggish. Instead officials tread lightly and ignore the reality that recidivism is a way of life on Tour.

According to various sources, the Tour has a “time score” for every player thanks to the detailed scrutiny of ShotLink. When asked on Saturday at The Players where Na ranks on that list one Tour official hedged, “Well, he’s not fast.”

If the Tour wanted to crack down on slow play they should target the bottom 10 percent of that list, timing every shot until the repeat offender moved out of the basement or played his way off Tour, whichever comes first.

Harsh, for sure, but when you look at how the slowest players impact play on Tour, it’s a punishment that would be neither cruel nor unusual.

For good measure the Tour should also publish the list of the circuit’s slowest. Nothing says “step on it” like public ridicule. Just ask Na. (Read Randall Mell's column on the heckling of Na)

“I do need to work on what I need to. I do need to work on my pre-shot routine. I do need to play faster,” an emotional Na said late Sunday. “But the average golfer has no clue how much pressure we're playing under and how tough it is and how much of a fight it is mentally. I honestly think with all that going on, I did pretty well fighting.”

To Na’s credit he owned his issues last week at TPC Sawgrass, going so far as to say he deserved to be heckled for his constant waggles and pointing out that a recent swing change has complicated his chronically slow pace of play.

He also endeared himself to many fans with his refreshingly honest appraisal, but good intentions and a quick smile don’t make five-hour rounds any easier to stomach.

In this the Tour could lead by example. Steady declines in participation have been linked to how long a round of golf takes and its relative expense. If the Tour set the standard that it’s not acceptable to stand over a shot for 60 seconds it might make it easier for the marshal at your local course to move that foursome in front of you around in under five hours.

All it would take is the will . . . and a stopwatch.