USGA Shoots Themselves in the Foot…Again

USGA has again taken a position that gives the impression they like embarrassing themselves and enforcing the feeling of many the organization is irrelevant to golf in the real world.

The latest is the announcement by the USGA (and R&A) citing they “are proposing regulations regarding the use of green-reading materials, reaffirming the need for a player to read greens based on their own judgment, skill and ability. Following a six-week period of feedback and consultation with interested parties that begins today, the regulations will be finalized in a published “interpretation” of Rule 4.3 (Use of Equipment) and adopted Jan. 1, 2019, when golf’s new rules take effect.”

A couple of points seem appropriate—why are they asking for feedback if the new rule will be in effect next year? It appears the decision has been made so why bother soliciting comments other than for the sake of appearances?

The USGA’s stipulation today’s green reading books give an advantage to players doesn’t hold up. Green reading books of the type the USGA is banning are used almost exclusively by elite players and most commonly on the professional tours. The simple fact the putting average on the PGA Tour for the past 15 years has actually gone up didn’t appear to have made a difference to what was assumedly an already formed opinion. PGA Tour stats show the average putts per round in 2002 was 29.09 and this season is 29.15. Of course, the minuscule increase is statistical noise but if Tour players are gaining such a large advantage and the green reading books means less skill is needed why doesn’t it show in the results?

Referring to the press announcement again, “Both the USGA and The R&A are committed to the position that a player’s ability to read their line of play on the putting green is an essential skill that should be retained,” said Thomas Pagel, Senior Director, Rules of Golf and Amateur Status for the USGA. “The focus of the interpretation is to develop an approach that is both effective and enforceable.”

The answer to the question of why average putts per round have not plummeted is not addressed which opens speculation of what the USGA ‘s real agenda might be and equally important the Association’s relevance to golf in general and the recreational golfer. Enforcement is another question and raises the specter of local tournament committees being in the position of arbitrating the proper numbers, marks, colors and arrows. Really?

This new rule is another in a long list of changes that apply mostly to the game as played by less than 1% of golfers…the elites. Should for example the PGA Tour, whose slogan until recently was “These Guys Are Good,” believe the topographical slope maps included in green reading books are not appropriate they should ban them.

The USGA has had similar “shoot themselves in the foot” embarrassments with other issues including “square grooves”, solid core golf balls, clubface rebound, anchored putting and their as yet unfulfilled goal of rolling back golf ball distance. They seem to make rules with little regard for 99% of golfers only on their view of the elite few.

It’s a wonder average players can see the USGA as having even a little relevance to the game.

Monday After Carnoustie

Truth time. My favorite majors are the Masters and the British Open and that’s not saying anything against the PGA Championship or the U.S. Open, just my view. This past week at Carnoustie, the most northern course on the Open rota, we got to see the 147th playing of the world’s oldest major and Francesco Molinari was certainly a worthy Champion Golfer of the Year.

We also had the chance for a few observations, hopefully cogent and worth reading.

The Course
The R&A found the time to test the face rebound of 30 drivers used by contestants and all of them passed muster…not too much trampoline effect. They were able to engage in this equipment certification exercise because they didn’t spend endless hours attempting to trick up the layout, trick the players or otherwise mess around with an already immensely difficult course. On Wednesday Carnoustie’s fairways were tested by the Golf Channel and had a Stimpmeter reading of 9.2; less than the greens but not by a lot which probably averaged 10 for the week.

The British Open is played au naturel and unlike our national golf association the R&A doesn’t seem to have an agenda to “preserve par” or push the greens to the edge of extinction. Even Tiger Woods agrees the R&A has the right idea saying after his round on Thursday, “…this is how the game should be played. It should be creative.”

Difficult for sure and unfair at times applies to every Open and especially the 2018 Car-nasty event. But who cares. It is compelling to watch.

Tiger
If you are Woods fan his performance for the week was encouraging and if you’re not it was confirmation his struggles to close out a tournament once in position to win. Since his return from back surgery and other personal problems his pattern has been reasonable play in the first two rounds then almost lights out in the third round where he has the best scoring average on the PGA Tour. We saw this clearly at Carnoustie and to win on Tour, much less another major, he must relearn how to close.

Woods T-6 performance in Scotland did achieve one thing. He advanced from 71st in world to 50th giving him a spot in the WGC Bridgestone Invitational starting on Aug. 2nd which is played over Firestone CC (South) in Akron where he has won eight times.

Long Ball
Molinari’s win should again point out the fallacy of the argument the golf ball goes too far. The Champion Golfer of the Year is ranks 53rd in driving distance on Tour and 79th in driving accuracy. It’s likely however advocates of “rolling back the ball” will either ignore these facts or put it down to a never to be repeated Carnoustie fluke.

Television Coverage
How anybody could have serious complaints about the 50 hours of live Golf Channel/NBC Sports coverage says reams about the critic’s lack of knowledge about the massive effort televising an outdoor sports event requires. And while we are on the subject, special kudos goes to the producers. For the third year at least one shot of each of the 156 players was shown on television. “If you’re good enough to qualify for The Open, you deserve to be seen on TV.”

On the Clock

The idea of doing something to hasten the sloth-like pace of professional and college golf, not to mention that four-ball ahead of you last Saturday, has been kicked around for some time. Golf’s pace of play has been criticized for as long as I have been playing but no one has really done anything practical at the elite level until the European Tour’s commissioner Keith Pelley decided enough was enough.

Thus, was born the Shot Clock Masters which until this year was known as the Austrian Open. Let’s not discuss how the name of Bobby Jones’s major was usurped again but look at the results of this experiment in rationality.

First the background. Commissioner Pelley (who also inaugurated the innovative GolfSixes event) made the decision to attack slow-play head-on by placing every player on the clock every shot. Unfortunately, because it took place the week before the U.S. Open and it was in Austria, this unique and revolutionary event gained only passing notice. After all there was all the hype leading up to Shinnecock and then Dustin Johnson’s impressive six stroke win in Memphis capped by a walk-off eagle on the 72nd hole.

Each group in the Shot Clock Masters for each round was accompanied by a golf cart on which a large digital shot clock was mounted. Players had 50 seconds to hit if they were first to play an approach shot and for par-3s or putts. That was shortened to 40 seconds for par-4 and par-5 tee shots plus when they were second (or third) to play on putts and approaches. If the player went over the allotted time there was no grace period, appeal or looking the other way. What he got was a one stroke added to his score.

The digital display was easy to see and the operator (the Euro Tour called them “referees”) said “time” when the clock started so everyone knew what was happening.

The question of course is what were the results?

Average time for the four rounds of the Austrian Open in 2017 was 4 hours and 40 minutes and for the Shot Clock Masters it was 25 minutes less. The average time for the final round on the European Tour is 3 hours and 57 minutes but at the Shot Clock Masters it was 3 hours and 26 minutes.

Do you see a trend?

Shot Clock players interviewed were enthusiastic (there were only four penalties meted out in four days), event officials were happy as were European Tour officials but so far, I have seen no comment from the PGA Tour nor the USGA.

Lost in all the noise though was something that turns the tables on those who say the pros play slowly because it’s their livelihood and they are playing for a lot of money. The average score for the entire Shot Clock Masters was more than one stroke less than the average for the past eight years of the Austrian Open on the same course.

It’s true the top players were missing from the Shot Clock Masters, either playing in Memphis or preparing for the U.S. Open but even so to cut off one-half hour from the previous average time AND have the field score lower is significant.

No…it’s amazing.

The PGA Tour has a pace problem with some of its players and the Tour seems to be stonewalling—a lot of discussion and few penalties. The USGA has conveniently avoided the issue resorting to inane PSAs such as the laughable “While We’re Young,” figuring out how to set up courses for the U.S. Open to embarrass contestants and rationalizing not disqualifying Phil Mickelson when lesser names would have been shown the path to the parking lot.

The problem with slow play, whether on the tours or at your club, is we don’t shine the spotlight on the offenders to embarrass them and then impose consequences.

Tackling the cause of slow play is recognizing it is not so much a problem inherent in the game but the lack of respect with players having a “me-only” attitude.