CROMWELL, Conn. – It’s the last day of spring at TPC River Highlands and Mark Russell, the PGA Tour’s vice president of rules and competitions, is parked under a tree between the fourth green and fifth tee watching the comings and goings of the 156-player field at the Travelers Championship.
As groups shuffle by, he keeps score, but it’s not each player’s relation to par but the group's relation to the threesome in front of them and a predetermined “time par.” At TPC River Highlands, that magic number is four hours and 18 minutes, and while groups routinely round the layout in times well over that allotment, Russell points out that no one is waiting.
“I just want everyone to play golf without waiting,” he says.
Here, at the high-profile epicenter of the game’s ongoing debate over pace of play, the reality of five-plus-hour rounds is not about slow play, at least not for Russell, as much as it is a numbers game.
Do the math, he will tell you.
“We don’t have a problem at all when we play 120 players,” says Russell, who joined the Tour as a rules official in 1980. “Go to Colonial or Arnold Palmer (Invitational), we don’t have a problem at all. When we play 156 players, we have eight more groups than you have holes.”
In practical terms, that means Thursday’s morning wave at the Travelers will likely race to the turn in a little over two hours and hit the Tour’s metaphorical time wall, the inevitable backup, Russell says, when you have 26 groups on an 18-hole golf course.
A day earlier in the TPC River Highlands clubhouse, however, the players tell a different story. It’s a tale of languid rounds and a system that encourages the slow players to remain slow, which results in rounds, like last week at the U.S. Open, that last well over five hours.
If the Tour sets the standard when it comes to pace of play, as many contend, the question, essentially, is whether the circuit’s current policy works or is simply not being implemented properly.
“It’s both,” said Lucas Glover.
Glover is one of the Tour’s fastest players, so much so that Clemson coach Larry Penley once said it was rare when Glover and Joe Ogilvie, who is equally fast, were playing together in college when there weren’t two golf balls in the air at one time.
“If the policy changed, it would be easier to implement,” Glover said. “I don’t think slow play will ever be fixed on our tour until we start penalizing shots, not money. A guy comes in, makes the cut on the number. An official is standing there and says, ‘You know what, actually you shot 1 over today, not even. You had a bad time on (No.) 14, and you missed the cut.’
“He would probably play faster next time.”
The Tour’s pace-of-play policy spans three pages in the player handbook but essentially states that a group or player is out of position when they “reach a par 3 that is open and free of play or reach a par 4 or par 5 and have not played a stroke from the teeing ground before the hole is open and free of play.”
When a player or group is deemed out of position, they are put on the clock and timed. They are allowed between 40 and 60 seconds, depending on the order of when they hit, per shot. On the first bad time a warning is issued, while the second results in a one-stroke penalty.
“Bad times” also accumulate during the season, and a player who receives 10 bad times is fined $10,000 and $5,000 for each subsequent violation after that.
But that policy doesn’t work, many players contend. A fine, which is considered a charitable donation, means little to players competing for millions. Nor do some players feel the policy is properly applied, considering that Glen Day is believed to be the last player penalized a stroke for slow play in Round 3 of the 1995 Honda Classic (the Tour doesn’t publish fines).
“Our pace-of-play policy is like putting up a sign, ‘Speed trap in 5 miles.’ That’s problematic,” said Paul Goydos, one of four player directors on the Tour’s policy board. “The problem is when you have two slow players with a fast player, and you put them all on the clock. That’s just patently unfair, but unless you have an official with every group, it is the only option, and right now that’s just not feasible.”
Slow play has always been an issue on the Tour, but it has become a talking point in recent weeks following the one-stroke penalty for slow play assessed to Chinese amateur Guan Tianlang during the Masters.
“We’ve been plagued by slow play for years, and it turns out it was a 14-year-old that was the problem,” Goydos said. “We should be embarrassed by that. I find that appalling that they did that. He was penalized for not knowing how to beat the system, not for slow play.”
But neither Goydos nor Glover dispute the trickle-down effect slow play in the Big Leagues is having at the grassroots level.
“You have your favorite players, and you want to emulate them. If that player has a two-minute pre-shot routine, that’s what you’re going to do,” Glover said.
So the question remains, how can the Tour speed up its sluggish image?
Cutting fields to 120 players would certainly help, but that doesn’t seem to be a viable option considering already reduced playing opportunities. Course setup, as evidenced at last week’s U.S. Open, is also an issue. Pins tucked four paces from a bunker and 4-inch rough is a recipe for slow play.
Golf course design is also an issue. Putting a par 5 that is reachable in two shots after a par 3 all but guarantees backups.
But it’s the implementation of the current policy, be it real or perceived, that many players say is the root of the problem.
On Thursday, for example, the group of Ben Curtis, Tommy Gainey and John Huh technically fell out of position as they made the turn because of a ruling on the 18th hole (they started on No. 10) and needed two holes to catch up to the group in front of them. The group was never put on the clock.
Rules officials are allowed a great amount of latitude under the current policy as to when groups are considered out of position and when to start the stopwatch when a player is being timed.
“We give them a couple of moments when they reach their ball to let the crowd settle down (before starting the clock),” Russell said.
Russell also said that slow play is nothing new and that the debate has raged at least since the Tour began playing 156-man fields in the mid-1970s, but given recent initiatives by the PGA of America and USGA to stamp out slow play, the issue has become a hot-button topic.
“Look at all of the things that have changed on Tour because of slow play,” Glover said. “We now have a second cut (on Saturdays if more than 78 players advance to the weekend). We are now having to really focus on finish and start times on Sundays and worry about twosomes or threesomes ... The evidence speaks for itself because of the progression of slow play in the last 20 years.”
There is no debating whether the Tour has a slow-play issue, either by Russell or any of the players interviewed. What is debatable is what, if anything, can be done about it. As decades of debate has shown, there may not be a fix, at least not at the game’s highest level.