In a few years, we may view what happened to Texas A&M at this year’s NCAA Championship as the seminal moment that changed the culture of slow play in college golf.
Previously, there had been only a few isolated incidents of players being penalized for lagging behind. But at NCAAs, Aggies sophomore Tyler Dunlap was slapped with a one-shot penalty during the third and final round of stroke-play qualifying, sending his team from safely inside the match-play cut to a four-team playoff. Less than an hour later, the Aggies lost on the first extra hole. Their season was over.
Clearly, the NCAA was sending a message with the pace-of-play crackdown at its marquee event. But the controversial decision irked several prominent coaches, not least the man whose team was directly affected.
“We need to play faster, there’s no doubt about it,” Texas A&M coach J.T. Higgins said. “But to not have it enforced all year, and then at your national championship all of a sudden it becomes a major issue? I don’t know what to say.”
That coaches were even having this discussion represents progress for the short-pants set, though surely that will serve as little solace for the Aggies.
No segment of the sport takes the rap for slow play quite like the college kids, with the loudest critics arguing that the pace-of-play issues on the PGA Tour stem from the next generation ingraining bad habits at the amateur level.
That’s an oversimplification of the situation, but there’s little doubt that there are fundamental problems that plague the college game – issues that, if not soon corrected, threaten to splinter the amateur ranks.
For starters, look at how slow play affected the NCAA Championship. For the first three rounds at Capital City Club, the NCAA set up four pace-of-play checkpoints on Nos. 4, 9, 13 and 18. Players had 14 minutes to complete each hole and 40 seconds to hit a shot when it was their turn to play. If the group missed two checkpoints, each player in the group was liable for a one-shot penalty. (Texas A&M’s Dunlap was one of only two players to run afoul of the rules at NCAAs.)
It’s a progressive system – similar to what’s used at events run by the American Junior Golf Association – but many coaches took exception with the fact that it’s enforced only once a year. Most regular-season events are run by the host school, an area golf association or another outside organization. There is no uniform pace-of-play policy in place because, essentially, no tournament is run exactly alike, with a different number of volunteers and rules officials each week. Some tournaments have strict pace-of-play policies. Others, not so much.
“We get lulled to sleep all year,” Alabama coach Jay Seawell said, “and because there’s no penalty then, guys don’t think they have a problem with playing slow. The only time we talk about slow play is the events that have enough people to do something about it.”
Another issue is the college coaches themselves. There is no other collegiate sport in which the coach is allowed on the field of play with the athlete. It can become a pace-of-play issue when, for example, a coach coddles the least-experienced player, walking with him, talking with him, making each shot a learning experience.
“Sometimes we would see a coach walk with the guy for all 18 holes, like he’s his caddie,” said Luke Guthrie, a former Illinois standout who now plays on the PGA Tour. “We were always thinking: Wow, can you not play by yourself?”
Seawell considers himself a hands-off coach, but agrees that his colleagues should shoulder some of the blame, too.
But his No. 1 culprit for slow play? Course setup.
Too often, he said, the venues try to provide the most exacting test of golf. That’s a worthy pursuit, of course, but it’s also unrealistic to assume that players will finish their rounds in four hours with hole locations that only a dozen or so in the field can reasonably access. “I haven’t seen a pin in the middle of the green in five years,” Seawell said.
Also easily changed is the size of the fields during the regular season. Most are 36-18 events (36 holes on the first day, followed by an 18-hole finale), with at least 15 teams of varying ability in the field. When there are too many players on the course, in threesomes, with a shotgun start and tee times ineight-minute intervals, there will be bottlenecks on the course. No way around it.
Yet the elite junior circuit in the country has been wildly successful at curbing slow play. According to the AJGA, a threesomes’ average pace of play at its tournaments was under 4 hours, 25 minutes in both 2011 and ’12.
How did the AJGA do it?
A tournament committee sets up six timing checkpoints throughout the course to assess not only the group’s gap time relative to the group in front of them but also the designated overall time par for the course (which varies week to week). Two “red cards” can result in either a group or individual penalty, depending on the situation. Also of note: If a player records five bad times during the round – taking more than 40 seconds to play a shot – then he or she could receive a one-shot penalty for undue delay.
In 2011, the AJGA instituted the Play Ready Golf concept that has trimmed, on average, about 10 minutes per round. The first player to putt out must head to the next hole and be the first to tee off, essentially eliminating the honors system.
Since 2007, the AJGA has issued no fewer than 2,660 red cards (warnings) and imposed no fewer than 26 penalties per year, while averaging no longer than 4 hours, 35 minutes for a round.
“It’s the best way to scare somebody into stop playing slow,” Guthrie said of the AJGA’s tactics.
The obvious question is why doesn’t the college game just implement the same system? Well, it’s not that simple.
It’s unfair to compare slow play at the college and junior golf levels for two reasons: First, the AJGA has a consistent pace-of-play policy at each tournament it runs because it has the resources to successfully enforce it.That’s not true at the college level, where manpower is an issue because each Division I team plays about a dozen events per season all across the country. Secondly, and perhaps more obviously, the competitive environment (course difficulty, won-lost records) presents a greater challenge for college players. They take longer because, oftentimes, more is at stake.
“But for the first time we’re approaching slow play as a cultural thing,” said Matt Thurmond, the head coach at Washington. “It’s not the rules official talking about Xs and Os of slow play and times and penalties. It’s making those that play slow aware that it’s not OK and that it’s actually cool to play fast.”
Indeed, strides are finally being made, especially on the West Coast. For that, credit coaches like Thurmond.
In 2010, he helped organize the “Under Four” campaign at the Huskies’ home tournament. They educated players on how to play faster; they set up the course to promote faster play; they showed each group’s round time on a scoreboard to incentivize playing faster; and they put players on the clock for all 18 holes. Round times there ranged between 4:07 and 4:15. The system worked.
Even more radical was what Rick LaRose, then the coach at Arizona, implemented a few years ago at the Wildcats’ home event. Players had 40 seconds to hit a shot – essentially, a shot clock. If a rules official was watching, and a player didn’t get off his shot in time, he was dinged for a shot.
Said Cal coach Steve Desimone, “It kicked these guys’ butts into gear and scores were the same, if not better.”
The Pac-12 Conference has led the way in this discussion, implementing a few common-sense ideas that have dramatically improved pace of play at its tournaments:
• Eliminating the traditional “honor system,” teaching players to finish out a hole and head to the next tee – in other words, the Play Ready Golf concept
• Handing out an education sheet – chock full of quick tips for players – that is read and repeated at each tournament hosted by a Pac-12 school
• And beginning with the 2013-14 season, Pac-12 coaches will have a “gentleman’s agreement” that no tournament will have a field with more than 81 players. “Coaches like to point fingers at kids,” Thurmond said, “but when you put more than 80 players on the course, there is nowhere for them to go.”
After each tournament, the Pac-12’s three-man slow-play committee – Thurmond, USC’s Chris Zambri and Colorado’s Roy Edwards – collects data about the format, setup, times and best practices, to be presented at the end of the season. Their system isn’t perfect, Thurmond warns, but “at least it’s something. We’re seeing results.”
“Each coach needs to ask himself: Are they part of the problem or are they trying to fix it?” he said. “There are a bunch of coaches that aren’t going to support it. They may say they want to play faster, but as soon as a rules official shows up and puts them on the clock, they’re crying and moaning.”
Yet surely that beats the alternative – crying and moaning after a controversial NCAA Championship.