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Slow play on PGA Tour: Problem of policy or implementation?

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MEXICO CITY – Pace of play at the game’s top echelon is an issue, again, because social media said so.

Armchair rules officials with quick fingers on the stopwatch marched from the electronic woodwork on Sunday as J.B. Holmes inched his way around Riviera Country Club to his fifth PGA Tour victory.

Among the heavy-handed comments that dominated timelines on Sunday were calls for Holmes, who is among the Tour’s slowest players, to receive a penalty for slow play. While that sounds great in practice, and there are certainly regulations in place to justify a yellow flag, it’s not that cut and dry.

Had Mark Russell, the Tour’s affable vice president for rules and competition, marched out into the 14th fairway and slapped Holmes with a stroke penalty, he probably would have been justified under the circuit’s pace-of-play policy.

The circuit’s policy covers four pages in the player’s handbook and essentially deals with whether a group is “out of position” when the hole in front of them is clear of the group ahead, which was the case Sunday at Riviera.

Generally, 40 seconds is the given time to hit a shot, though players receive a 60-second allowance in some circumstances. The 40-second threshold is one that Holmes regularly violated on Sunday. A player is first given a warning when they’re assessed a “bad time.” For a second offense, a player is subject to a one-stroke penalty.

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There are those who think it’s high time for some tough love, with Adam Scott going so far last week to admit he’s told Tour officials to penalize him if it would mean speeding things up.

The question here is whether this is a policy problem or an implementation problem.

“We have a policy and we have rules that state what we should do,” Billy Horschel said on Tuesday in Mexico. “It’s an implementation problem because we don’t fully implement all the way. This is nothing against (the Tour), but you look at their comments and they don’t feel we have a pace-of-play issue.”

Horschel’s point is completely valid. If the policy had been fully implemented on Sunday, Holmes’ group should have been put on the clock (they weren't) and Holmes should have been issued a “bad time” (he wasn’t).

But this is more than simply officials turning a blind eye to a chronic problem. As outraged as social media seemed to be while Holmes plodded his way around at a snail’s pace, just imagine the indignation that would have followed had he been given a penalty for his sluggish pace?

Playing in the final group with a title on the line and 30-mph gusts making every shot an exercise in diminishing returns is not the time to expect a sub-4-hour round. It’s just not.

“We’re trying to win $1 million. Go put some of these guys who are (complaining) about it in our position and say, ‘Have at it, bro. Hurry up. You’ve got 190 (yards) into a 30-mph wind. Hit it fast and make birdie,’” said Kevin Kisner, who is one of the Tour’s fastest players.

In every professional sport, from the NFL to the NBA, fans regularly lament overzealous officiating. "Let them play" is a common theme. But in golf, because it’s happened so infrequently – Miguel Angel Carballo and Brian Campbell were assessed the Tour’s first slow play penalty in 22 years at the 2017 Zurich Classic – this slow-play handwringing is a familiar theme.

The vast majority of the golf public agrees that slow play is a problem at every level, and perhaps cracking down at the highest level is part of the solution. Asked how the public would have reacted had Holmes been told to add one stroke, Horschel agreed with Kisner.

“There would have been outrage, but I think fans are getting to the point where they are getting tired of it,” Horschel said. “The problem is it’s leaking down to the amateur and college game. When I play in pro-ams, it’s amazing to see how long some of these players take. We are such big influencers in the game that whatever we do people are going to copy us.”

But Horschel also echoed Scott’s comments last week. “Penalize me,” he’s told officials. What’s obvious is that there’s no easy answer. Rules that only apply when they won’t impact the outcome are not really rules at all. But if the Tour’s track record is any indication, it’s not as though officials are fired up to start doling out penalty strokes.

If Holmes or any of the other slowpokes aren’t going to be called for slow play when they’re finishing tied for 32nd, then they certainly aren’t going to draw a flag when a title is on the line and the wind is howling.

As viral as Holmes’ pace may have been on Sunday, imagine how the court of public opinion would have reacted had Holmes or someone else in his group been penalized and lost the event because of the infraction.

“It would have been worse, in my opinion,” Kisner said. “It’s a difficult place to be as far as a player and a rules official. You don’t want to impact the outcome. At that point what is him finishing 20 minutes earlier really going to change?”

No, there’s nothing wrong with the Tour’s policy, but maybe common sense dictates that there will always be an issue with the circuit’s willingness to enforce it.