19th hole: Time for PGA Tour to take stand on slow play

OAKVILLE, QC - JULY 26: J.B. Holmes looks on from the seventeenth hole during the championship pro-am of the RBC Canadian Open at Glen Abbey Golf Course on July 26, 2017 in Oakville, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images) Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

19th hole: Time for PGA Tour to take stand on slow play

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19th hole: Time for PGA Tour to take stand on slow play

It’s probably for the best that J.B. Holmes didn’t play the Sony Open in Hawaii a few weeks ago, since a man who can’t pull the trigger on laying up into the rough within four minutes surely would be paralyzed with uncertainty when faced with an alert about an incoming ballistic missile.

Holmes has been at the center of a tetchy debate about pace of play on the PGA Tour since his interminable lollygagging in the final fairway at the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines, during which he iced his playing partner, Alex Noren, and outraged even those viewers who hadn’t tuned in expecting to see the Grammys.

There was a time when Holmes was more attuned to his public image. That was in his early days on Tour, when he opted to go by his initials because he wearied of jokes about his ‘70s porn star namesake. That self-awareness hasn’t been much in evidence during the fallout from Torrey Pines.

“I didn’t realize how long it was taking,” Holmes said afterward. “I don’t understand what the big hoopla is all about.”

He has a point. Why all the hoopla over four minutes of idling when his threesome required almost six hours to reach that final fairway? Focusing on the 18th hole delay is akin to treating a patient for a cold while ignoring their cancer.

Several reputations took a hit thanks to the achingly slow play on that Sunday at the Farmers: those of Holmes, of the PGA Tour, and of Torrey Pines. The latter unfairly so.

I asked Torrey’s course manager, Mike Jones, how long a weekend group usually needs to get around one of the busiest muni courses in the country.

“We typically stay right around the 4.5-hour threshold as an average,” he said. “But that can easily creep into the five-plus range as we near tournament conditions.”

Think about that for a minute or four. Weekend choppers playing Torrey Pines in near-tournament conditions – long rough, firm and fast greens, cart-path only – still often finish roughly about an hour faster than the best players in the world needed Jan. 28. (The argument that the pros were slow because the stakes were huge is undercut by the reality that the worst offenders are as slow on Thursday morning as they are on Sunday afternoon).

“The most important message we try to convey is that playing at a reasonable pace enhances everyone’s enjoyment of the game,” Jones said.

It’s a shame the PGA Tour doesn’t convey the same message.

Commissioner Jay Monahan has shown an admirable willingness to break with his predecessor Tim Finchem, not least on making public the names of players suspended for drug test violations. But on the slow-play issue, Monahan is dragging his feet.

While the folks at Torrey Pines have taken action by cajoling customers along, the Tour has administered a penalty for slow play exactly once in the past 23 years. Small wonder that slowpokes don’t fear any consequences for displaying such a contemptuous disregard for their fellow competitors, for viewers and for broadcast partners who must interrupt programming to accommodate late finishes.

A new approach is needed. And since electric cattle prods are unlikely to win widespread support, here’s my second preference:

Every player starts a tournament with one bad time warning in the bank. Once they’ve used that warning – whether early in the first round or late in the final round – every subsequent bad time incurs an automatic one-stroke penalty. No more treating each round as a fresh start. One and done.

Holmes earned $331,200 for finishing fourth at the Farmers. Had he been hit with a one-stroke penalty for glacial play, he would have dropped into a tie for fourth, costing him $28,000. Even if he hadn’t laid up in the rough on 18, if he had gone for the green and made eagle to get in the playoff, he still deserved a penalty that would have booted him from the sudden-death shootout. His potential loss then would have been at least $184,000.

The Tour’s current practice of meager fines issued in secret is neither a deterrent nor financially impactful. Stroke penalties carry both public stigma and a potentially punitive hit on the offender’s wallet.

Skeptics will say that a slow-play penalty would be a terrible way to end a tournament. True. But I’d wager we’d only see that scenario happen once. Even if J.B. Holmes is in the last group on Sunday. Gwk

 

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