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Golf's slow play curse lingers on

Issue more nuanced than at first glance

CNN  — 

There are times when watching golf is similar to watching a wildlife documentary; so elaborate are some of the modern players’ pre-shot routines, and so lurid the outfits, they resemble birds of paradise, in the full throes of courtship.

But what you don’t find yourself shouting over the soothing tones of David Attenborough is: “Hurry up and hit the damn ball!”

Slow play is a fast route to heated debate in the sport.

At Torrey Pines in January, American JB Holmes took four minutes, 10 seconds to hit his second shot on the final hole, despite the PGA Tour rules stipulating that a player should take no more than 40 seconds. His whole round took six hours.

Then there’s Kevin Na, who was derided on social media – including by former England cricketer Kevin Pietersen – for taking a minute-and-a-half over what appeared to be a routine tap-in at the Genesis Open.

Na wasn’t impressed, pointing out that the putt was actually 3 foot 4 inches and was worth $300,000. But it’s not the first time Na has been cited for his pace of play, so sympathy was at a premium.

However, some in the game say there is more to slow play than the self-absorption of millionaire golfers terrified of making mistakes.

“There are times when it’s unpalatable, horrible to watch,” says Englishman Eddie Pepperell, who won his maiden European Tour title in Doha last month.

“I saw a couple of clips of Kevin Na, and that wasn’t cool. And what JB Holmes did was disrespectful. But the reality is, an acceptable amount of time for a three-ball depends on the toughness and length of the course.”

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Horses for courses

On top of that, he argues, the modern golfer is more analytical than in previous eras.

“I played with a teenager in a pro-am, and he was taking ages over his shots,” says Pepperell. “I said to my caddie, ‘It’s our fault that this young lad is taking this long. He’s been told that it’s the right thing to do.’”

But, says Pepperell, if he backed off every time he had a negative thought, he’d take six hours every round. “We’re human beings, we have negative thoughts, you’ve just got to get on with it,” he says.

On the flip side, weekend warriors boasting of how quickly they play compared to the pros are not taking tournament venues into account, according to Pepperell’s European Tour colleague Laurie Canter.

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“I’m not saying there aren’t slow players, but it makes me laugh when I read tweets from 15-handicappers saying, ‘It takes me two-and-a-half-hours to get around my local course,’” says Canter.

“That may be, but put them on our courses, make them finish every hole, and then see how long their round would take.”

He points out that as well as layouts getting longer, the whole infrastructure around modern courses, often designed to be played in a buggy, can also have an impact.

“I played a course a couple of years ago that had four-minute walks from greens to tees on every hole. That’s an extra hour of play, and it all adds up,” he says.

Englishman Eddie Pepperell won the Qatar Masters in Doha in February.

Slow play or poor play?

Often slow play is just a manifestation of poor play, particularly among high handicappers, and Canter is cautious of draconian measures.

“Are you going to penalize players for playing poorly?” asks the 27-year-old. “And it’s going to happen more at majors, because of the extra challenge of major golf courses. I’ve played two (British) Opens, and both times it took an incredible amount of time to play my rounds.”

The argument that pro golfers are playing for vast sums of money – or, indeed, their futures on tour – and therefore have every right to take their time is anathema to some.

But others empathize with Australia’s former world No.1 Jason Day when he said he had no intention of speeding up his play, and that he’s “got to get back to what makes me good. If that means I have to back off five times, I’m going to back off five times”.

Jordan Spieth took 30 minutes to play a shot during the 2017 Britih Open at Royal Birkdale, although his deliberations were to establish where he could take a drop.

‘Important shots’

Players deemed to be slow are warned and “put on the clock” by officials – if they then fail to speed up they are given a one-shot penalty.

But despite the stigma attached, the PGA Tour has only penalized two players since 1995 (Miguel Angel Carballo and Brian Campbell were docked a shot at the Zurich Classic last year, although that was in a team event, in which their timings were combined).

And many players have stated that nothing will change unless shots start being docked from serial offenders.

But both Pepperell and Canter worry that such a system would be devilishly difficult to implement without causing controversy.

“How are you going to implement a policy that makes slow players play faster without penalizing the faster players who occasionally take longer over a shot because it’s particularly challenging?” says Canter.

“Think about one of the most iconic shots of all time, Tiger Woods’ chip-in at the 16th at Augusta in 2005: it took him two-and-a-half minutes to play that shot. Imagine if a referee had come out, looking important and brandishing a yellow card in the middle of his pre-shot routine. That’s not realistic.

“JB Holmes took way too long, but that might be one of his most important shots of the season.”

Tiger Woods' chip-in on the 16th in the 2005 Masters is one of golf's most iconic shots.

‘Keep it flowing’

Pepperell says there are some simple tweaks that would speed things up, such as being ready to play when it’s your turn or hitting before it’s your turn if your partner isn’t ready.

“It doesn’t matter who plays when, let’s just keep it flowing,” says Pepperell, who also thinks the etiquette around avoiding other players’ putting lines could be looked at to reduce the length of time spent on greens.

Pepperell and Canter are divided on green books – diagrams depicting the contours on the putting surfaces; the former thinks their banning would make rounds quicker, the latter thinks it might make them longer, because certain players’ minds would be even more muddled without them.

And Canter thinks it is up to the players to “take responsibility” and police themselves, with the help of the on-course referees.

“A catalog could be built up on certain players. Maybe then slow players would say, ‘My peers have a problem, so I’ve adjusted my routine accordingly,’” he says.

“I’m not sure it’s right slagging off players for isolated incidents. We could go through the archive and find lots of incredible shots that were well over the time limit, by lots of different players. That’s part of the drama.”

The jury is out whether green books are a help or hindrance to slow play.

‘Society has changed’

Pepperell and Canter agree that golf is never going to be anything but a slow, cerebral spectacle, but they both say it can be made into a sexier product, given funkier television coverage and with tournaments married to other forms of entertainment – for example, the Made in Denmark event in Himmerland doubles as a music festival.

But Pepperell believes that if we all just looked at the slow play debate from a different angle, “we might just chill out a little bit.”

“Take the Shot Clock Masters [which will be played for the first time in Austria in June],” says Pepperell. “If you limit players to 40 seconds per shot, what’s the best that’s going to happen? We get around in three-and-a-half hours? That’s still a long time.

“Golf is always going to take a long time, unless you fundamentally change the way it is played, like Twenty20 cricket.

“But I wouldn’t advocate that. Golf’s been around for centuries, it’s society that’s changed. Should golf react to the changing pace of life, or does it acknowledge that we live in a state of flux, and there might come a time when people want to slow down again and get away from the stresses of life?

“I understand why golf’s appeal is diminishing, because young people’s attention spans are shorter – including mine – and people want things here and now. But will it always be that way? I hope not.”