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April 2023

Why Pace of Play Will Never be Solved

Nudges Aren’t Going to Help

By Harvey Silverman

Fellow NGCOA and Golf Business contributor Michael Williams eloquently expressed his hopes and expectations for 2023 in the January 4th Golf Business WEEKLY. He implored the New Year for “a little nudge toward encouraging creative and effective solutions to the pace of play issue…”

Williams is not the first nor will be the last to express a desire for faster play from 25 million golfers. But I hate to tell you – neither a little nor a big nudge will change anything. 

Pace of play has been a top-shelf issue for decades, exacerbated when the golfer roles swelled in the late 90s, and golf course design and construction focused on “challenge.” Owners bought into the idea of setting up their course as if the pros were coming to play next week, and gaining a higher slope rating was prestigious, while we welcomed more and more beginner and novice golfers to come play. That’s like placing a 15-year-old student driver in the pole position at the Indy 500 – it’s not going to end well. 

Remember the infamous “While We’re Young” campaign launched by the USGA ten years ago (was it that long ago?)? It produced 30-second broadcast PSAs featuring Arnold Palmer, Clint Eastwood, Tiger Woods and Annika Sorenstam with a message to speed things up “while we’re young.” Unfortunately, it seems the USGA gave up on the initiative just a couple of years later.

Introducing the campaign was then USGA president Glen Nager, who said, “When we do our research to see what’s causing slow play at the recreational level, it’s not because people are imitating professionals. It’s because they’re playing from the wrong set of tees, or the greens at their course are too fast, or the hole locations are bad, or the rough is so high that they can’t find their ball.”
Exactly right. But now we’re older, and nothing has changed – including handicap indexes.

The USGA recently published its 2022 Handicap Index report. For the first time, the number of USGA handicap subscribers topped three million. That’s a good thing. Having and maintaining an official handicap index is a sign of commitment to the game as well as getting better at it. Nothing beats a handicap index to measure one’s improvement. But here’s the sad part of the story: The average indexes for men (14.1) and women (28.0) did not change one decimal point. In other words, no one got better on a macro level. And since we like to believe that improvement in play produces faster play, we’ve made no progress with this theory. The inconvenient truth is – golf is a hard game.

The late Bill Yates was already the USGA’s pace of play guru, strategizing on improving pace at USGA events. In fact, Yates authored the NGCOA’s “Pace of Play” manual earlier this century. Yates spoke at a California Golf Course Owners Association meeting at Hunter Ranch Golf Club in Paso Robles, California. The year I cannot recall, but probably between 2005-2010. However, I vividly remember his statement that made everyone stop and think: “Americans think UK golfers play faster than we do. But that’s not true – they just get done sooner.”

And why is that? UK golfers walk at the same speed as Americans and likely swing the club as many times. However, the course setup is different, particularly the distance from greens to tees. And match play is the game of choice in the UK (and elsewhere), while we lads prefer to count every stroke as if it’s a sacred duty to write a “10” on a scorecard.

Speaking of the USGA’s Pace Rating System for golf courses, Yates said, “While very accurate, the Pace Ratings themselves did not change management practices or the individual player’s behavior, for these are two of the main areas where the root causes for ‘slow play’ emanate.” (Golf Club Atlas, July 2007).

And that’s my point. We have two human elements creating a problem that can’t agree on a solution. First, golf course owners are loath to make changes that might downgrade the slope rating. Sure, many have or are adding additional tee boxes, but who shepherds the golfers to the correct one? Ask a course operator why they won’t substitute red stakes for white out-of-bounds stakes or set holes on the most accessible green locations on the busiest days, and they’ll bind you to the range picker for the day. And many course owners and operators are stuck with a course designed to sell houses, causing long traverses from hole to hole and slowing play.

On any particular day, a golf course is filled with golfers shooting everything from par to 30 over par, more or less. No one likes to lose a golf ball or concede a hole at triple bogey. Some are out for the day, with nary a care how long the round takes. But we’re implored to be more welcoming to all the new golfers who joined the game during the pandemic. Letting them know that they’re playing too slowly and from the wrong tee, that they badly need lessons and that they should stop counting and pick up at double bogey creates the impression, “We really don’t want you here.”

And wasn’t technology supposed to improve the pace of play? You know, GPS on carts, phones, and watches, personal rangefinders, flow-control systems like Tagmarshal and Fairway IQ? Yes, there might be some incremental improvement, but are 10, 15 or 20 minutes (max) enough to bring us to a universal agreement that slow pace has been resolved? I don’t think so.

But wait, help arrived at the PGA Show. Two companies introduced sleek-looking single-rider carts. Marvelous. And both claim getting golfers into their carts will improve pace of play, with one claiming a 35% increase in pace! Holy ride like the wind, Batman. This cart claims to turn a typical 4.5 hour round, 270 minutes, into a 175-minute round – less than three hours. Now we’re talking!

So replace your current 80-cart, dual person carts with 160 single-rider carts. Will you need to invest some cash to restructure your cart barn? Sure. Will your superintendent mind seeing 640 wheels rolling across the turf rather than 320, even at a slightly lower weight? I’m sure not. Will your golfers mind the new mandatory cart rule? Hell no, we’re all too lazy to walk. Then load up the golfers, one by one, and enjoy all the incremental revenue gained by creating more tee times as golfers whiz from hole to hole and finish in under three hours, or under ten minutes per hole. Your business will never be the same.

Flying to Orlando is a five to six-hour flight for me. Do I wish it was faster? Sure. Do I know it won’t be? Absolutely. And that’s the reality that golfers have to accept about playing an 18-hole round of golf on a full-length course. It will take four and a half hours, maybe five, at a public course on an average day. That’s the game we play, and accepting it is no different from accepting that you’re not going to break par. Enjoy the outdoors, enjoy the company, enjoy the occasional shot euphoria and most of all, appreciate that you have a great game like golf to play.

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