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With slow-play changes shelved, RBC Heritage could reignite debate

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HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. – When golf was shelved in March by COVID-19, there was no shortage of flash points for players and the PGA Tour. From driver testing and something called “CT creep” to a proposed world tour that was actively wooing the game’s top players away from the Tour, it was an interesting time for golf.

But with the pandemic having quickly quieted all of those conversations, there is one pre-coronavirus topic that desperately needs to be revisited: slow play.

Originally scheduled for April, this week’s RBC Heritage was supposed to be the first event played using the Tour’s new and improved pace-of-play policy. Needless to say, that's no longer the case.

First, some background. The circuit was very much driven to overhauling its policy on pace of play after social-media outrage last year overshadowed The Northern Trust and backed Bryson DeChambeau into a slow-play corner. The response from the Tour, the most comprehensive rethinking of pace of play in decades, called for drastically increased fines, an expansion of the policy’s focus from groups to individuals and an evolving list that identified the circuit’s slowest 10 percent based on ShotLink data.

The egregiously slowest were going to be watched and timed and, many believe, finally penalized for holding up their fellow competitors – and it was all going to happen at Harbour Town.

But the current plan is to start the new pace-of-play policy next season.

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Tour officials will tell you that it’s classic courses such as Harbour Town and last week’s stop at Colonial, which were routed for ease of play, that cast a spotlight on the slowest because there’s nowhere for them to hide.

That Harbour Town is now the second event on the circuit’s comeback tour is moderately ironic. A course that’s known for a relatively fast pace of play will likely be mired in gridlock this week with a field that’s swelled to 154 players.

In normal years, the Heritage field is just 132 players, but the Tour to expand that number to 144, and an increased number of past champions only added to what promises to be a long week.

“Any time our fields are bigger, it seems like it slows play down by 10 or 15 minutes per round per group,” Webb Simpson said. “There's going to be some waits at the turn. [Nos.] 2 and 5 are short par 5s. I think the front nine will probably play a lot slower than the back nine, but no complaints here.”

The quaint tournament that’s forged a reputation of relaxation and ease as the traditional post-Masters stop will more resemble rush-hour congestion for at least the first two days. Officials had to expand the locker room to accommodate the additional players and even considered co-opting the adjacent Plantation Club driving range for additional space.

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Given the mountain of challenges the Tour currently faces, from COVID-19 testing to the logistical concerns of creating a weekly “bubble,” perhaps slow play should remain on the backburner.

But with first and second rounds drifting well past the five-hour mark at last week’s Charles Schwab Challenge, plus a continued intolerance for slow play by those on social media, the same distractions that forced the Tour’s hand last year are sure to resurface.

The need for the Tour to get back to the business as soon as possible was always going to be the top priority for the Tour, but just as slow play was concerning enough to prompt a policy overhaul last year, it should still be important enough to implement those changes sooner rather than later.