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A quick fix to slow play on the PGA Tour

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Not only did March give us exciting golf, superstars collapsing on Sundays and a disabled list of top-ranked players, slow play on the PGA Tour reared its ugly head again.

We had Kevin Na, the unfortunate face of slow play, get into another sticky situation at the Valspar Championship. This time the controversy entangled one of the fastest players on the Tour, Robert Garrigus, and saddled him with a bad time. Last week we were introduced to Andrew Loupe (pictured above), a possible Na successor to the slow-play title. It was painful to watch Loupe’s endless practice swings and subsequent back offs that seem to make up his disjointed pre-shot routine. At least at Valero, the Tour officials singled him out on Sunday and timed him, not the entire group. He got a bad time on No. 8 and somehow was able to hit every shot after that within the allotted time.

The reaction to slow play brought out the same argument that we have heard over and over again from those that seem to have the ear of the decision makers – slow play is caused by too many players in the field. As a former member of the Player Advisory Council of both the PGA and Web.com tours, I have been in many meetings where this argument holds and nothing happens to address the real problem.

I would gladly accept the field size argument if facts and circumstances were there to support the cause. The facts tell a different story. If slow play ONLY occurred on Thursday and Friday of 156-man events then let’s trim away and have pace-of-play utopia. Fact is slow play occurs once players have been cut on the weekend (see Na-Garrigus). Groups have been put on the clock in WGC events with 70 players in the field. Guan Tianlang received a one-stroke penalty on Friday of last year’s Masters. Only 93 players teed it up that day in Augusta.

Last Sunday in San Antonio is another beautiful example that harpoons the field-size-equals-slow-play argument. On Sunday 71 players began their rounds. Thirty-five players started on the 10th tee and 36 began on the first hole. The last group played the front nine in over 3 hours.

Slow play is not a group event. It is a series of individual actions that affect the whole group. Trimming the group has not worked and will not work in the future. We have more limited field events on the PGA Tour than at anytime in recent history, yet slow play is worse than ever.

SLOW PLAY IS CAUSED BY SLOW PLAYERS! If we had 156 Brandt Snedekers in a field, slow play would not be an issue.

Before we look forward, let’s review the current policy where a player is allowed one bad time in a round with no consequence. The second and third bad times within a round cause the player to add a shot for each infraction. The fourth results in disqualification. The bad times carry over all year with a $5,000 penalty for each bad time starting with the second bad time. Once the player has been timed 10 times within a season he is fined $20,000.

Sounds good, but it’s not working. So let’s fix the problem. Here are some ideas that, if implemented, would help immediately.

The Tour needs to objectively identify the slow players. The season will start with the existing policy in place, where groups that fall out of position are subsequently timed. Once you have been timed twice at any point in the season you receive the Scarlet Letter, let’s make it an S. The S is next to your name on the tee sheet. Now if your group is out of position, the official begins only timing those with an S. One caveat would be that if the timing official notices that any other players in the group are taking too much time they can be individually timed as well.

Don’t fear, you wouldn’t be branded with an S for the entire season, realizing that even fast players can be with groups that fall out of position and get two timings. The S would go away once you have played five consecutive tournaments without being timed. Get timed again twice and the S returns. The S designation would also carry over from season to season.

Now that we have singled out those that cause the traffic delays we have to have an effective way to penalize them so that, when they break the timing standards, they will feel the pain enough to change their behavior.

In this proposed new structure a player would add a stroke when he gets one bad time while branded with the Scarlet Letter, and gets a $5,000 fine. Second bad time within a round adds two strokes to the card (another fine of $5,000, which carries throughout the year for every bad time). Third bad time within a round will make you pack your locker and get out of town. Once you have 10 timings there would be a $20,000 fine just like the current system.

There’s one small catch. Every now and then a player – either fast or slow – faces a shot that requires extra attention be it a difficult lie, stance, or sudden change in wind, etc. In other sports the teams that run up against the clock are able to utilize a time out to keep them from getting penalized for violating timing standards.

It should be no different in professional golf. I’d like to allow a player to get one timeout per tournament. You can let the official know that you have a tough shot and need an extra minute. Any player should be able to hit any shot within a two-minute timeframe.

Sometimes the conditions on a course or during a round can be extremely challenging like the final round at the Valero and it’s obvious that players would face more difficult shots. In these instances, it should be up to the officials to move the shot clock. That change, if there was one, would be posted on the first tee and in the locker room.

This entire structure should be enough incentive for slower players to get with it and understand that part of golf at the highest level requires a shot to be hit within 40 seconds. Trimming fields and hitting slow pokes in the wallet has not worked.

Let’s recognize the real issue causing slow play and set up a nice objective system that everyone can understand. Start penalizing habitual offenders and behaviors will quickly change. So will those three-plus hour nine-hole rounds on the PGA Tour.