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Latest slow-play penalty brings up more questions than it answers

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Last week, the PGA Tour took a hard line against one of the most pressing issues in golf – slow play.

Well, that should have been the takeaway after Corey Pavin was slapped with a slow-play penalty during the final round of the PGA Tour Champions’ Dominion Energy Charity Classic. But like all things that involve pace of play, the incident was much more complicated than that.

Pavin was given a one-stroke penalty for violating the tour’s pace of play policy and the infraction nearly cost him a spot in the second postseason event for the over-50 circuit; but instead of a chorus of approval from those who have anxiously awaited a push to stamp out slow play, the reaction was, well, confused.

“I never thought Corey Pavin was a slow player,” Golf Channel analyst Lanny Wadkins said. “All the guys we know are slow players have never been penalized out here. Where has this been for the last 15 years?”

At issue isn’t whether Pavin violated the circuit’s policy. He did. What Wadkins and others struggled with is a system that allows habitual offenders to circumvent the desired outcome - faster play - while continuing their sluggish ways.

“It’s absolutely ridiculous,” Stephen Ames tweeted. “It took us 4 hours and 15 minutes to play a 2-ball. We were an hour longer than the first guys that teed off. It’s unacceptable.”

Ames also pointed out in his social media missive that he played behind Bernhard Langer, who has a reputation of being a slow player. Rounds that last five hours or more is the biggest point of frustration for players on both the PGA Tour and the over-50 circuit.

It’s become a broken record for both players and fans. People complain, pundits point out the flaws in a system that includes warnings and a healthy degree of leeway when a player is timed, and nothing changes. At this point, complaints about slow play have become little more than white noise.

But before you tune out and dismiss this most recent episode, consider that slow play is much more than a mild annoyance. It might be aggravating to fans that have grown weary watching a Tour-type run the two-minute drill on a tough putt, but next week’s Shriners Hospitals for Children Open offers a glimpse into the cost of slow play.

The Tour’s policy board approved a plan to reduce the field size in Las Vegas from 144 to 132 players. According to a memo sent to players, the decision was made “to give the tournament a better chance of completing Rounds 1 and 2 on schedule.”

To be fair, part of this problem was driven by the event’s move from mid-October to early November, when the daylight window is slightly larger. But there’s no denying the fact that if threesome rounds didn’t regularly stretch past the five-hour mark, this would not be an issue.

For those who study pace of play at the highest level, this is a question of simple math. The PGA Tour policy allows players from 40 to 50 seconds to hit a shot depending on the order of play within a group. According to information provided to players by the Tour, the average amount of time taken to hit a shot is 38 seconds, but that number allows for a great degree of latitude. All pro-am rounds (such as Pebble Beach and next week in Las Vegas) are removed from that equation as are any shots that require a drop, penalty or provisional shot. That average also removes 10 percent of each player’s slowest shots.

Perhaps more eye opening are the Tour percentages. Eighty percent of all players took between 31 and 44 seconds to hit shots so far this season, while only 40 percent took between 35 and 40 seconds, which in theory should be the goal given the fine print of the circuit’s policy.

But the biggest hole in the Tour’s policy is that players are normally timed only when their group has fallen out of position – which means they have exceeded the allotted time to play and reached a par 3 that is “open” – and they’re told they’re on the clock. And if somehow all of those warning signs aren’t enough to pick up the pace there is no penalty for a first offense. Only after a second bad time is a player penalized a stroke.

In other words, play faster or we’re going to tell you to play faster again.

Tour officials have shown no interest in putting some teeth in a policy that is ineffectual at best and, if Pavin’s penalty on Sunday is any indication, misguided at worst; and there’s no chance this recent incident will be the tipping point for a stronger and more robust policy.

But for the handful of players who don’t get into the field next week in Las Vegas because of the reduced field size, pace of play is no longer a talking point, it’s a point of contention.