USGA's pace-of-play symposium digs into data

USGA golf

FAR HILLS, N.J. – So, are we trying to cure the common cold? Skeptics might suggest yes, that slow play is an inherent problem that the game of golf will never shake.

Many disagree, and their concerted efforts to keep this topic at the forefront are rooted in a passion for golf and a desire to see it thrive as a business.

“Why should we care about pace-of-play improvement? The player is our customer,” said Bill Yates. “We want to improve the quality we provide him.”

The founder of Pace Manager Systems, Yates has studied the nagging problem of slow play for years. Among the many golf courses for whom he has consulted are St. Andrews and the Pebble Beach Golf Links. Always, Yates has considered the issue from a practical standpoint – and he has gained considerable allies in Matt Pringle, Andrew Tiger and Lucius Riccio. In the world of golf, where PGA are the letters of note, Pringle, Tiger and Riccio bring Ph.D to the table, analytical and statistical men whose numbers made Yates smile inside the headquarters of the U.S. Golf Association on Thursday.

“You ask people (in all avenues of golf) about this issue. They don’t have an answer,” Yates said. “We need a science.”

That science is being provided by:

  • Pringle, technical director of equipment standards for the USGA;
  • Tiger, a professor of management at Union University in Jackson, Tenn.;
  • and Riccio, guest lecturer at Columbia and author of “Golf’s Pace of Play Bible.”

They joined Yates and a host of other industry leaders at Golf House for a symposium entitled “While We’re Young: Golf’s Pursuit of a New Paradigm for Pace of Play.” While they bandied about terms such as “cycle times” and “tee intervals,” their message was clear: Saving minutes here and there and educating golf course owners, head pros, superintendents and golfers on how and why things slow down is crucial.

For one listener, the data have changed his mind. Where before Jeff Hall simply thought slow play was owed to slow-playing players, the USGA’s managing director of rules, competitions and amateur status agreed to jokes that he had seen the light.

“I found religion on this (slow-play business),” Hall said, laughing.

Turning serious, Hall said that Pringle’s data about “cycle time,” for instance, were eye-opening. So were data collected from referee timing cards from this year’s U.S. Open at Merion. On those cards, referees were asked not only to log in when a group finished a hole, but explain “delays” and the “reasons for the delay.”

In one case, a crosswalk was left open two minutes longer than it should have been, Hall said.

When these cards were collected and assimilated and mixed in with the years of data by Pringle, Tiger and Riccio, guess what? USGA officials had to concede that there’s plenty of blame to go around.

“We had to dig deeper (thanks to the data), and when discovered that, boy, that finger started to point back at us, the (USGA Championship) committee with a capital 'C,' ” Hall said. “We can do our part to help (the players).”

While Hall was specifically talking about some slow-play issues at the U.S. Open and how officials reacted to rectify them, USGA executive director Mike Davis made it clear that the “While We’re Young” campaign is “focused on the recreational golfer.”

Said John Bodenhamer, senior managing director of rules, competitions and equipment standards: “Championship golf is different from recreational golf.” And former PGA Tour commissioner Deane Beman went so far as to say “the PGA Tour gets a bad rap” with the constant moaning and groaning about rounds that reach five hours and beyond.

“It’s just not possible to get 144 (players) around in less than 4 hours, 40 minutes,” Beman said.

Should the pro golfers be exonerated? Not at all.

“Management has the largest responsibility (in the slow-play dilemma),” Yates said. “Players are second.”

Certainly, Heather Daly-Donofrio has a unique vantage point. She played on the LPGA tour and now she’s the circuit’s vice president of tour operations.

“We are role models; we’re all stewards of the game,” Daly-Donofrio said. But striking a balance between trying for one’s best score and moving in good pace is not always easy. Daly-Donofrio has used data to show that the quicker one plays, the better the mood and the better the score.

“We tell them it’s better for them," she said. "It’s for their enjoyment (to keep pace).”

No golf product is watched more closely than the PGA Tour, but several echoed Beman’s opinion that the players there aren’t as slow as many suggest. “There’s nowhere for them to go,” Yates said.

“It’s a complicated subject. It’s not a simple issue,” said Tyler Dennis, vice president of competition for the PGA Tour.

Still, Davis insisted the USGA showed a commitment to tackling the problem during the 2013 U.S. Open at Merion Golf Club in Ardmore, Pa. Hall put forth data that showed some progress was made. The average round in this year’s U.S. Open took 5:05, 11 minutes faster than at The Olympic Club in 2012. In Round 4, the average twosome played in 3:58 at Merion, better than the 4:03 recorded in San Francisco.

“When you go to players, by and large they will cooperate,” Hall said.

Others said that’s true at the recreational level, too. Ryan Walls, senior vice president of operations for Troon Golf, said that 60 percent of golfers surveyed expected to play in less than 4:29 and that 91 percent were more likely to play at a course where pace of play was enforced.

Tee-time tickets at Troon golf courses include the starting time and the expected finish time; since that started, the differences have been noticeable. At two of Troon’s California golf courses, the pace of play is down – 11 minutes per round at Indian Wells and 16 minutes at Yocha Dehe GC.

Yet Rand Jerris of the USGA said its research showed that of the public facilities asked, only 5 percent had any sort of pace-of-play plan in place.

The AJGA was praised for its ambitious attack on slow play, though Stephen Hamblin acknowledged that it wasn’t an easy start. Parents complained and players seemed befuddled when the initiative took hold in 2002, but its “check station” is considered by many rules officials to be an effective counter to slow play.

Penalty strokes are the end result, if a player turns in four bad times during the length of an AJGA tournament. Officials know there’s a strong lobby out there that would love to see the same thing happen at the professional level – as happened, for instance, to Tianlang Guan during the 2013 Masters, drawing much attention. But Bodenhamer reminded of what sits at the heart of officiating.

“This isn’t about giving guys penalties,” he said. “It’s about preventing penalties.”

Bodenhamer went so far as to say that “everything is on the table,” that “we’re going to look at the Rules of Golf differently.” That could mean reducing from five minutes to three the time allowed for looking for a lost ball.

Sounds like a small thing, no? Well, it is. But guess what? Data are a lot of small things that when added up produce a big problem.

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