LA QUINTA, Calif. – This is not the final answer to fix slow play, but it’s a start, and for those who have watched the issue ebb and flow its way through the decades it’s a reason to be optimistic.
It would be the acme of foolishness to consider the changes to the PGA Tour’s pace-of-play policy the final solution, and the circuit had no interest in taking a victory lap Tuesday when it unveiled the details of the rules.
“This has been talked about for a very long time,” admitted Tyler Dennis, the Tour’s chief of operations.
“I feel like I’ve heard my dad say pace of play has been talked about since he was a rookie,” said Bill Haas, whose father, Jay, played his first season on Tour in 1977.
For players and policy makers, pace of play has become an annual flashpoint every time a player or a round takes a particularly egregious amount of time. It happened last year at the playoff opener when Bryson DeChambeau snapped the internet over his knee when he took more than two minutes to hit a putt.
The Tour had been plodding along in what was described as an ongoing review of the pace-of-play policy at the time, but the blowback from DeChambeau’s social media snafu accelerated the process, and the result was this week’s big reveal.
In a conference call Tuesday, Dennis explained that the changes, which will begin in April, are fundamental in nature. It breaks from the traditional focus of keeping groups in position when they’d fallen behind to a more proactive approach that focuses on “individual habits of slow players.”
The Tour doesn’t want to name names, and it won’t, but it is going to create a list of the circuit’s slowest and it is going to use that list to change attitudes. Consider this golf’s version of double-secret probation for the habitually slow.
The Tour nomenclature for this is an “observation list” that will be based on the average amount of time – according to ShotLink data – a player takes to hit a shot. Players who average longer than 45 seconds to hit a shot will be placed on the list and will be subject to additional monitoring during rounds.
The purpose of the observation list is to identify habitual offenders and help them understand how they might change their bad habits. Although it remains to be seen how many players will land on this list, according to ShotLink the slowest 10 percent of players on Tour take 45 seconds to hit a shot (the fastest 10 percent take 29 seconds) which means statistically there will be about 25 players on the list at any given time.
There are plenty of elements to the new policy but individual accountability is, essentially, where the Tour has decided to make their stand. In theory it seems the circuit has picked the right fight, but in practice it remains to be seen if the new regulations are any more effective than the old guidelines.
“What we are all concerned with are the three or four players each day who seem to take advantage of the time allotted. They seem to not care about their playing partners, whether that’s the case or not I don’t know,” Bill Haas said, “I don’t know if [the new policy] changes that. I feel like those same people are going to take their time that they think is needed.”
People tend not to embrace criticism. That’s not a golf thing, that’s a life thing; and more often than not the Tour’s slowest players don’t believe they are the slowest players with DeChambeau’s response to criticism last year in New Jersey being the best example of this.
The new policy certainly has more teeth, and Dennis said the primary focus over the next few months will be educating the players, but will it be enough to force the slowest among them to take a hard look in the mirror?
“We’ve talked to a lot of players and we have obviously spent a lot of time thinking about it with the [player advisory council] and policy board, but we haven’t actually spoken to any players who are on the observation list at this time,” Dennis conceded.
Habitual offenders who spend a season on the observation list will be subject to what the Tour calls a “major penalty,” which ranges from a fine of $25,000 to a suspension. But as the current policy has proven since it was created in 1994 fines don’t work, not with millionaires who see the opportunity to easily cover any potential fine with a single solid finish.
Since the earliest days of slow-play handwringing the call has been for more punishments that involve penalty strokes and the new policy – which allows for a penalty stroke for two bad times in a single tournament compared to the old method of two bad times in a single round – is a step in that direction. But the previous loopholes of warnings and extra time, like the 60 seconds players are allowed to hit shots if they are being monitored on the observation list, will continue to make stroke penalties rare.
The Tour is just not there yet, but it is getting closer. In fact, after decades of ignoring the issue the new policy could be considered a seminal shift, particularly for commissioner Jay Monahan.
“I’m optimistic because of the leadership we have on Tour. Even though Jay has come out and said he doesn’t believe slow play is an issue, but he’s listening to other people and the players and respecting their opinions and wanting to do something about it,” Billy Horschel said. “He can put his feelings aside and take the majority of players and address an issue.”
The new policy isn’t the final solution for slow play, but it is progress.