There are times when tradition is worth protecting. There are times when tradition must give way to change. And there are times when it seems difficult to draw the fine line between the two.
The U.S. Golf Association ended a 101-year-old practice Oct. 15 when it announced the U.S. Open will adopt a two-tee start for its championship next summer at Bethpage State Park’s Black Course in New York. The change seemed inevitable; after all, the Women’s U.S. Open has used a two-tee start with success in each of the last two years, and the Senior U.S. Open at Salem utilized one in June.
Fred Ridley, chairman of the USGA’s Championship Committee, said the transition to a two-tee start should leave a two-hour window of daylight following play during each of the first two rounds at Bethpage and future Opens – allowing for valuable flexibility in the case of inclement weather.
In reality, inclement weather, the type that interrupted play both at Pebble Beach in 2000 and Southern Hills in 2001, is only part of the picture here.
The bigger reason for the change: slow pace of play.
Even when the weather has been ideal, as it was in the early rounds at Pinehurst No. 2 in 1999, the USGA has had difficulty moving all 156 players around the golf course before darkness encroached. At Southern Hills in June, tee times were even moved up 30 minutes to 6:30 a.m. Some competitors woke up at 4 and hit practice balls in the dark.
Give the USGA credit. It does its homework, finds out who the fastest players are and tries to put them out early. Nonetheless, the first group at the U.S. Open last summer – playing with caddies on a course lined with marshals who virtually ensure no golf balls are lost – completed 18 holes in 4 hours, 30 minutes. By mid-day, players were finishing in 5-plus hours.
Major championships are contested over golf’s greatest courses – regarded as such in part because of their strategic routings. A round of golf, ideally, should begin on the first tee and end on the 18th green, as the course architect intended. In 2002, only two of golf’s major championships, the Masters, which has a short field, and the British Open, which has more than ample daylight in summer, will send all its competitors off the first tee.
“I think most people recognize the nature of a modern (U.S.) Open, and we know it makes for a much better championship if we can get a round started and finished on schedule,” said the USGA’s Marty Parkes. “We’re looking at these things all the time, and we’ll see how it works. I’m not going to deny that there is a slow-play problem in the game today. I wish we could find a solution. It’s elusive.”
The USGA likely is making the best of a difficult situation in going to two tees, but in a way, it also seems to be waving a flag of surrender, acquiescing to the slow, deliberate style of play that continues to plague our game.
This isn’t a USGA problem, but a game-wide problem. However, as the governing body of golf in our country, the USGA ought to get more serious about addressing this plight. For the good of the U.S. Open – and, more important, for the game in general – the assessment of a few penalty strokes might be just as effective as a two-tee start.