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.

Killing the Game Slowly

Observers are applauding the European Tour’s renaming the 2018 Austrian Open as the Shot Clock Masters. Putting aside a potential piracy issue around borrowing the Masters Tournament’s name, the whole idea of professionals being on a shot clock is intriguing. Unfortunately it doesn’t address the real world problem of slow play.

By way of background, on every tour and at every amateur tournament there are strong pace of play policy statements but, at least on the PGA Tour, penalties are almost unknown. The most recent was a one stroke penalty handed out to Brian Campbell and Miguel Angel Carballo during the 2017 Zurich Classic but the previous penalized infraction was in 1995.

The European Tour it seems is going to be more aggressive in changing the ways of snail’s-pace toursters and willing to try something new. At their GolfSixes team event in May (an innovative format of team six hole matches) a shot clock was tested and most players accepted it enthusiastically.

During the Shot Clock Masters an official will accompany each group and time players. Fifty seconds will be allowed for the player whose turn it is to hit first while others in the group will have 40 seconds. If a player takes longer he will get a red card, just like in soccer, and more significantly a one stroke penalty. In case of real trouble each player will get two “time outs” giving him double the time. It remains to be seen what will happen in an instance as when Jordan Spieth during the final round of the Open took 26 minutes for his second shot on the thirteenth hole from Royal Birkdale’s driving range.

The Shot Clock Master will be interesting if for no other reason than to see what will be the ruling if one of the big name stars goes over the allowable time deciding on whether it’s a two-iron or three-iron from the rough around a tree over water to a shallow green. But let’s face it, some tour guys are fast and some are slow. Players and officials know who they are.

You and I know the real problem is not with the professionals nor even elite amateurs, it’s that group of guys ahead of you Saturday morning.

There has been lots of research done and opinion voiced about pace of play ranging from less skilled players taking shot after shot without getting closer to the pin to the difficulty of course set up not to mention the distance between a green and the next tee. Some opinions are even based on a combination of ignorance and prejudice and usually have to do with ladies on the course. Or, my personal favorite perfecting illustrating the idiocy of some course managements, seven minute tee times. There are a couple courses in my area that do this and I won’t play there.  

These and other supposed reasons all miss the real cause of slow play, a lack of respect for others.

If offending players respected those being tortured back in the fairway they would simply pick up and move ahead a hole or two. It’s not a privilege to watch the complete circling of every putt twice or going to the bag for multiple club changes. The attitude demonstrated has nothing to do with, “I paid my money and I’m going to play the whole course,” and everything to do with the deep seated knowledge they deserve to play at any pace because they are more important than the guys leaning on their drivers back on the tee.

Unfortunately there probably isn’t any way to get the message across to the worst offenders not even the “While We’re Young” PSAs by Clint Eastwood and Arnold Palmer. Too bad because though the course is not the only situation where the “me-only” attitude can be seen, as far as golf is concerned it is surely killing the game slowly.