Before I defend Kevin Na and Morgan Pressel, let me start by saying that as a player, I always thought that slow players should be flogged. Though I never was a fast walker in nearly two decades of professional golf, I never came close to receiving a bad time. As a matter of fact, I will admit now that when paired with a notoriously slow player, I would take extra time early in the round so that the group would be put on the clock to speed up the slug (or slugs).
Kevin Na brought the slow-play conversation back to the table at The Players Championship with his manic, if not frantic, episodes over tee shots and several approach shots. Those conversations will get pushed to the forefront this week, and hopefully some sanity will prevail going forward after Morgan Pressel likely lost a match due to being assessed a punishment that didn’t fit the crime. It doesn’t seem very likely that the collective mob that has been calling for penalty shots will show much sympathy for Pressel – but perhaps a little perspective wouldn’t hurt.
Are we really willing to allow a slow-play penalty to determine the outcome of a golf tournament? Forget about the historical perspective, and the integrity of the game. Because if you want to include those arguments, then you might have to start taking a look at some of the game’s greats who also were some of the game’s biggest offenders in playing slowly.
Instead, let’s take a look at the equitability of enforcing such a rule that would cost a player a shot (or in Pressel’s case, one hole in match play). Unless the collective associations in professional golf are willing to put an official with every group, then some minutes are going to be a lot more costly than others.
If a player whose group is not on the clock takes a minute – 60 seconds – to hit a shot, then he or she will not be penalized. However, if a player in a group that is on the clock takes the exact amount of time, he or she will be penalized a shot.
Where in the Rules of Golf can two players do the exact same time and only one’s score is affected?
The simple answer? Nowhere. Each Tour has its own way of (ineffectively) dealing with slow play. The LPGA tour is a little quicker on the trigger than the PGA Tour, having assessed one-shot penalties nine times since 2008. However, none of those penalties was as severe or as costly as the one assessed Pressel at the Sybase Match Play on Sunday.
Playing the par-3 12th, Pressel went 39 seconds over her allotted time (90 seconds) to play three shots. Without the penalty, she would have been 3 up with six holes to go in her match with Azahara Munoz. Instead of being assessed a shot (the penalty in stroke play) that still would have left her 2 up in her match had her win at 12 been adjusted to a halved hole, Pressel was issued a loss-of- hole penalty. Suddenly she was 1 up, not 3 up, standing on the 13th tee.
Pressel went on to lose the match. This marked the first time on any major tour that a slow-play penalty had such a direct and clear impact on the outcome of a golf tournament. Granted, it was a match-play event, but clearly this situation generated more questions than answers.
Are we willing to compromise the integrity of the game, the beauty of competition and the legacies of our biggest stars to make sure that “60 Minutes” starts on time? Imagine if Bubba Watson had taken an extra 20 seconds to hit his second shot in his playoff last month at Augusta, when he produced what will go down as one of the most famous shots in Masters history. What if he’d been penalized and consequently lost the green jacket? What if Bill Haas were penalized for taking 47 seconds to hit the shot out of water at East Lake that eventually won him $11 million?
I don’t know if Bill or Bubba took more than 45 seconds to hit either of those shots. The truth is that I don’t care, and I doubt that you do, either. Before we toss out the baby with the bath water on the slow-play issue, let’s remember that some of the greatest shots in the game’s history came after a moment or two of pause and thought.
I feel certain that there is an answer to the slow-play dilemma. But the truth is that smarter people than me have been trying to figure it out for years. So far they have failed, and now they are failing worse than ever. The LPGA has bowed to the pressure, handing out penalties that fly in the face of reason. If the PGA Tour does the same thing, pace of play may improve, but at what cost?
Fans may not be thrilled about the pace of play, but what will the reaction be when one of the game’s biggest stars loses a golf tournament by a second?