As players descended upon Orange County National Golf Center in Orlando, Fla., for a Golf Channel Amateur Tour event this past April, they headed to a check-in counter where they were reminded by tournament officials of several pre-tournament staples: cart assignments, rules for the upcoming round and where lunch would be served at the conclusion of play. For the first of many times during the day, though, they were also made aware of one of the most important concepts of any Am Tour round – pace of play.
When Golf Channel took over operation of the Am Tour in 2009, its events staff inherited a series of tournaments where 5:30 rounds were accepted as a frustrating but inevitable norm, with some rounds extending to six hours or beyond. By instituting a proactive pace-of-play policy, one that is actively enforced by an on-site team at each event, Am Tour officials have reduced the time it takes to complete a competitive round at any one of their events by more than 45 minutes.
“Our pace-of-play policy is great in that it puts the power into the hands of the individual players,” explained regional director Joe Wagner. “Our emphasis and education of our players on proper pace of play has vastly improved our pace on tour over the years.”
Much like the AJGA, the Am Tour uses a time par on each hole to gauge progress of pace on the course. Though officials inform groups of where they stand “to par” at various points throughout the round, players are officially checked twice during the round, at both the ninth and 18th holes. At that point, they have two options to avoid sanction: finish at or below the prescribed time par for their round, a hole-by-hole breakdown of which is printed on each participant’s scorecard, or finish the hole within 14 minutes of the group in front of them. If unable to satisfy either of the requirements, players are given a one-shot penalty upon their first offense.
While the PGA Tour has not assessed a penalty stroke for slow play in 18 years, Am Tour officials have shown no such hesitancy in adding on additional strokes for groups in violation of the policy they have created. Since the start of the 2013 season, 96 one-shot penalties have been issued nationwide to Am Tour players.
“We’re not afraid to enforce policies,” said Colin Turner, the Am Tour’s director of events. “If we don’t penalize a group that is out of position, we can lose the entire golf course. It’s a domino effect.”
While penalties apply to individual players, they are assessed at Am Tour events on a group-by-group basis. Though officials offer an appeals process after the round where players can make a case that the penalty should apply only to a single slow individual, the vast majority of penalties remain assessed to each player in the offending group.
In addition to introducing an aggressive policy to help monitor the field, the Am Tour makes several other adjustments with pace of play in mind, specifically at 'major' events conducted nationwide. For instance, while the tee sheets of the various host courses allow for foursomes, all Am Tour majors utilize only threesomes, sacrificing potential revenue to help maintain a more manageable pace. On high risk/reward holes with forced carries that can sometimes become problematic for pace of play, volunteers are often stationed to signal to players whether a ball has cleared a hazard to avoid extensive delays that may result from the dreaded return trip to the teeing ground or fairway.
By opening events to players of varying skill levels, Am Tour officials also face the unique challenge of preparing a course for both scratch players as well as bogey (or worse) golfers. At any given event, up to four different tees are used; while Championship Flight participants play a course ranging from 6,500-7,000 yards, the same track is reduced to a range of 5,800-6,300 yards for players in the Snead Flight, who carry handicaps of 20 or higher.
According to Turner, the higher-handicapped players are not necessarily the most frequent offenders of the tour’s pace-of-play policy.
“Level of play does not dictate pace of play,” he explained. “Your higher handicappers hit it more often, but lower handicappers pay more attention to each shot.”
The results from the Am Tour’s extensive efforts can be seen in the significant reduction in overall pace of play. While rounds often pushed six hours in duration as recently as 2009, thus far the national average for the 2013 Am Tour season has been 4 hours, 43 minutes. On June 15, separate local events were conducted in Tampa, Fla., Alma, Ark. and Kannapolis, N.C.; the average pace at each event was 3:55, 4:00 and 4:22, respectively.
Having invested the time into both devising and executing a pace-of-play policy that has proven effective, the Am Tour continues to show that golfers of varying skill can enjoy the structure of a tournament round and compete against their peers on a course that matches their ability – all while still making it to the post-round lunch table before the food gets cold.