PGA Tour continues to seek antidote to slow play

By Rex HoggardJune 21, 2013, 1:01 am

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.

June is Pace of Play month

“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.

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HOFer Stephenson: Robbie wants to play me in movie

By Will GrayOctober 22, 2018, 4:20 pm

Margot Robbie has already starred in one sports-related biopic, and if she gets her way a second opportunity might not be far behind.

Robbie earned an Academy Award nomination for her work last year as former Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding in the movie, I Tonya. She also has a desire to assume the role of her fellow Aussie, Jan Stephenson, in a movie where she would trade in her skates for a set of golf clubs.

That's at least according to Stephenson, who floated out the idea during an interview with Golf Australia's Inside the Ropes podcast shortly after being announced as part of the next class of World Golf Hall of Fame inductees.

"We've talked about doing a movie. Margot Robbie wants to play me," Stephenson said.

There certainly would be a resemblance between the two Australian blondes, as Robbie has become one of Hollywood's leading ladies while Stephenson was on the cutting edge of sex appeal during her playing career. In addition to several magazine covers, Stephenson also racked up 16 LPGA wins between 1976-87 including three majors.

Robbie, 28, has also had starring roles in Suicide Squad and The Wolf of Wall Street.

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Monday Scramble: Who's No. 1 ... in the long run?

By Ryan LavnerOctober 22, 2018, 4:00 pm

Brooks Koepka becomes golf’s new king, Sergio Garcia enjoys the Ryder Cup bump, Danielle Kang overcomes the demons, Michelle Wie goes under the knife and more in this week’s edition of Monday Scramble:

Brooks Koepka added an exclamation point to his breakout year.

His red-hot finish at the CJ Cup not only earned him a third title in 2018, but with the victory he leapfrogged Dustin Johnson to become the top-ranked player in the world for the first time.

That top spot could become a revolving door over the next few months, with Johnson, Justin Thomas and Justin Rose all vying for No. 1, but it’s a fitting coda to Koepka’s stellar year that included two more majors and Player of the Year honors.

For a player whose team searches long and hard for slights, there’s no questioning now his place in the game.

1. DJ won three events this season, but he wasn’t able to create much separation between him and the rest of the world’s best players.

Koepka’s rise to No. 1 made him the fourth player to reach the top spot this year, and the third in the past month.

Who has the greatest potential to get to No. 1 and stay there? Johnson is the best bet in the short term, but he’s also 34. Koepka will be a threat in the majors as long as he stays healthy. So the belief here is that it’ll be Justin Thomas, who is 25, without weakness and, best of all, hungry for more success.  

2. Koepka had an eventful final round at the CJ Cup. Staked to a four-shot lead in the final round, his advantage was trimmed to one after a sloppy start, then he poured it on late with an inward 29. He punctuated his historic victory with an eagle on the 72nd hole, smirking as it tumbled into the cup.

It was his fifth career Tour title – but only his second non-major. Weird.

3. How appropriate that golf’s most underappreciated talent – at least in his estimation – became world No. 1 in a limited-field event that finished at 2 a.m. on the East Coast. Somehow he’ll spin this into being overlooked, again.

4. Sergio Garcia carried all of that Ryder Cup momentum into the Andalucia Valderrama Masters, where he earned the hat trick by capturing his third consecutive title there.

While the rest of the world’s best gathered in Korea or rested for global golf’s finishing kick, Garcia won the weather-delayed event by four shots over Shane Lowry. Garcia’s foundation hosts the tournament, and he extended his crazy-good record there: In 14 career appearances at Valderrama, he has three wins, seven top-3s, nine top-5s and 13 top-10s.

Garcia, who went 3-1 at the recent Ryder Cup, became the first player since Ernie Els (2004) to win the same European Tour event three years in a row.

5. Gary Woodland probably doesn’t want 2018 to end.

He was the runner-up at the CJ Cup, his second consecutive top-5 to start the season. He made 11(!) birdies in the final round and now is a combined 37 under par for the first two starts of the new season.

6. This definitely wasn’t the Ryder Cup.

Four shots back, and the closest pursuer to Koepka, Ian Poulter had a chance to put pressure on the leader in the final round. Instead, he was left in the dust, mustering only three birdies and getting waxed by seven shots (64-71) on the last day. Poulter tumbled all the way into a tie for 10th.

7. It hasn’t been the easiest road for Danielle Kang since she won the 2017 Women’s PGA.

The 26-year-old said she’s dealt with anxiety for months and has battled both putting and full-swing yips. Her problems were so deep that a week ago, she stood over the ball for four minutes and couldn’t pull the trigger.

No wonder she said that she was “pretty stunned” to hold off a bevy of challengers to win her second career title at the Buick LPGA Shanghai.

“I’m finally at a place where I’m peaceful and happy with my game, with my life,” she said.

8. In the middle of the seven-way tie for second in China was Ariya Jutanugarn, who will return to No. 1 in the world for the second time this season.

9. Also in that logjam was another former top-ranked player, Lydia Ko, who had tumbled all the way to 17th. Ko hasn’t been able to build off of her slump-busting victory earlier this summer, but she now has six consecutive top-16 finishes and at least seems more comfortable in her new position.

“Sometimes you get too carried away about the awards and rankings,” she said. “It just becomes so much. I think it’s more important to keep putting myself there and … shooting in the 60s, and that way I think it builds the confidence and the rankings kind of sort itself out.”

Here's how Tiger Woods explained his pitiful performance at the Ryder Cup: “I was tired because I hadn’t trained for it. I hadn’t trained this entire comeback to play this much golf.”

Of course, he looked just fine a week earlier at East Lake, where he snapped a five-year winless drought with one of the most memorable weeks of his legendary career. His training wasn’t a topic of conversation there.

It's reasonable to expect that the emotional victory took a lot of out of him, but if he was so gassed, why did he sit only one team session and go 36 on Saturday? By Sunday night, Woods looked like he was running on empty, so either he wasn't upfront with captain Jim Furyk about his energy levels, or Furyk ran him out there anyway.

This week's award winners ...  

Can’t Catch a Break: Michelle Wie. The star-crossed talent announced that she’ll miss the rest of the season to undergo surgery to repair a troublesome hand injury. Maybe one of these years she’ll be able to play a full schedule, without physical setbacks.  

Grab the Mic: Paul Azinger. Taking Johnny Miller’s seat in the booth, Azinger will call all four days of action at every Golf Channel/NBC event, beginning at the WGC-Mexico Championship. He was the most logical (and best) choice to follow the inimitable Miller.

Take That, Dawdler: Corey Pavin. It was Pavin – and not the notoriously slow Bernhard Langer – who earned the first slow-play penalty on the PGA Tour Champions in what seemed like ages. The one-shot penalty dropped him to 15th in the event.

Long Time Coming: Jason Day. His tie for fifth at the CJ Cup was his best finish worldwide since … The Players? Really. Wow.

The Tumble Continues: Jordan Spieth. In the latest world rankings, Spieth is officially out of the top 10 for the first time since November 2014. A reminder that he finished last year at No. 2.

Clutch Performances: Andalucia Masters. Both Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano and Richie Ramsay both moved inside the top 116 in the Race to Dubai standings, securing their European Tour cards for next season. Gonzo tied for fifth in the regular-season finale, while Ramsay was joint 11th.

That’s Messed Up: CJ Cup purse. As colleague Will Gray noted, the purse for the 78-man event was $9.5 million – or $400K more than the first 15 events of the Tour schedule combined. The difference between the haves and have-nots has never been larger.

Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Justin Thomas. The defending champion never could get started in Korea, closing with his low round of the week, a 4-under 68, just to salvage a tie for 36th. Sigh.  

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Azinger: 'Can't see anybody beating Tiger' at his best

By Will GrayOctober 22, 2018, 2:44 pm

There's a new world No. 1, and a fresh crop of young guns eager to make their mark on the PGA Tour in 2019. But according to Paul Azinger, the player with the highest ceiling is still the same as it was when he was walking inside the ropes.

Azinger was named Monday as lead golf analyst for NBC Sports, and on "Morning Drive" he was asked which player is the best when all are playing their best. The former PGA champion pondered new world No. 1 Brooks Koepka and former No. 1 Dustin Johnson, but he came back around to a familiar answer: Tiger Woods.

"I just can't see anybody beating Tiger when Tiger's at his best. I just can't see it," Azinger said. "He's not his best yet, but he's almost his best. And when Tiger's his best, there's more that comes with Tiger than just the score he shoots. That crowd comes with Tiger, and it's a whole 'nother dynamic when Tiger's at his best. And I'm just going to have to say that when Tiger's at his best, he's still the best."

Woods, 42, started this year ranked No. 656 in the world but had a resurgent season that included a pair of near-misses at The Open and PGA Championship and culminated with his win at the Tour Championship that ended a five-year victory drought. For Azinger, the question now becomes how he can follow up a breakthrough campaign as he looks to contend consistently against players from a younger generation.

"That's why we watch, to see if he can maintain that. To see what he's capable of," Azinger said. "Now longevity becomes the issue for Tiger Woods. In seven or eight years, he's going to be 50 years old. That goes fast. I'm telling you, that goes really fast."

When Woods returns to action, he'll do so with a focus on the upcoming Masters as he looks to capture the 15th major title that has eluded him for more than a decade. With bombers like Koepka and Johnson currently reigning on the PGA Tour, Azinger believes the key for Woods will be remaining accurate while relying on the world-class iron play that has been a strength throughout his career.

"I think he's going to have to recognize that he's not the beast out there when it comes to smacking that ball off the tee. But I'd like to see him try to hit a couple more fairways periodically. That'd be nice," he said. "If he can drive that ball in the fairway, with that putter, we've seen what his putter is capable of. The sky's the limit, boys."

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Spieth drops out of top 10 for first time since 2014

By Will GrayOctober 22, 2018, 2:08 pm

As Brooks Koepka ascended to the top of the Official World Golf Ranking, a former No. 1 continued a notable decline.

Jordan Spieth didn't play last week's CJ Cup, where Koepka won by four shots. But Jason Day did, and his T-5 finish in South Korea moved him up two spots from No. 12 to No. 10 in the latest rankings. Spieth dropped from 10th to 11th, marking the first time that he has been outside the top 10 in the world rankings since November 2014.

Since that time, he has won 12 times around the world, including three majors, while spending 26 weeks as world No. 1. But he hasn't won a tournament since The Open last July, and this year he missed the Tour Championship for the first time in his career. Spieth is expected to make his season debut next week in Las Vegas at the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open.

Updated Official World Golf Ranking

Koepka and Day were the only movers among the top 10 on a week that saw many top players remain in place. Sergio Garcia's rain-delayed win at the Andalucia Valderrama Masters moved him up four spots to No. 27, while Gary Woodland went from 38th to 30th after finishing second behind Koepka on Jeju Island.

Koepka will tee off as world No. 1 for the first time this week at the WGC-HSBC Champions, where new No. 2 Dustin Johnson will look to regain the top spot. Justin Rose is now third in the world, with Justin Thomas, Rory McIlroy, Francesco Molinari, Bryson DeChambeau, Jon Rahm, Rickie Fowler and Day rounding out the top 10.

With his next competitive start unknown, Tiger Woods remained 13th in the world for the fifth straight week.