Slow Play Epidemic The Tour Has No Desire To Cure

It’s doubtful Cicero had the PGA Tour’s pace of play policy in mind when he wrote “The more laws, the less justice,” but his pithy philosophy is no less applicable. The Tour’s code runs four pages and is a masterclass in authoring rules designed to be unenforceable.

Consider the particulars. Players are permitted 40-50 seconds to play their shots depending on the order of play in a group, but exceeding that limit doesn’t incur a bad time. For a group to be officially considered out of position they not only have to exceed the allotted time to play a shot but also reach a hole that is open and free of play. Only then does a group go on the clock. The punishment for that bad time is, well, nothing. A second bad time earns a one-stroke penalty, the third gets two. A DQ only comes at four. The fines levied are so meager as to be meaningless.

The most imbecilic mind on Tour would struggle to parse the policy but not to manipulate it.

Like a persistent rash, pace of play was again an irritant at the Players Championship. When the first round was called for darkness — despite daylight saving time — Anirban Lahiri still faced a short putt on the final hole. He had to return Friday morning to finish up. The Tour’s invariable stance is to insist there’s nothing to see and that everyone should just move along (at their own pace, of course).

“They don’t do anything about it. It’s become somewhat of an epidemic on Tour,” Rory McIlroy said after his second round, which took more than five hours to complete. “Look, it’s our livelihoods and people are going to take their time, and as the course dries up and gets firmer and gets tougher, guys are going to take their time. But the fact that someone didn’t finish yesterday … I mean, that’s unacceptable.”

“Honestly, I think they should just be a little tougher and start penalizing shots earlier, and that would be an easy way to fix it,” he added.

McIlroy is not a lone voice. Brooks Koepka and Adam Scott have been vocal about the issue in recent weeks. Scott, not known as one of the Tour’s lollygaggers, even volunteered to take a penalty on principle. “Make me the victim,” the exasperated former Masters winner said. “I’ll take the penalty. The only way it’s going to work is if you enforce it.”

One gauge of a law’s efficacy is the frequency with which it is applied. At the 2017 Zurich Classic, the team of Miguel Angel Carballo and Brian Campbell was hit with a one-stroke penalty for slow play. It was the first such sanction imposed on Tour in 22 years, since Glen (All) Day was docked at the 1995 Honda Classic. If slow play is an epidemic, it’s one the Tour isn’t concerned about immunizing.

“They’re 20 minutes per round slower on the PGA Tour than in Europe, and Europe is 20 minutes per round slower than the Japan Tour,” said Gareth Lord, a longtime caddie who now works for Justin Rose.

There are many excuses for slow play, all of which have merit: high stakes, lousy course design, fast green speeds and increased distances players hit the ball creating longer waits on holes. There are just as many solutions.

The PGA Tour could (but won’t) add a shot clock and enforce it with impactful penalties. The PGA Tour could (but won’t) reduce the size of fields to ensure play finishes on schedule. But denying players opportunities to earn a living is too bold a proposal in a player-run organization. So short of those ideas, the Tour could simplify what it means to be “out of position” and institute effective and immediate penalties for violations. Dawdling gets a warning, continued dawdling gets a stroke penalty. Anything else gets a courtesy cart to the exit.

Fines are a worthless deterrent, dismissed by slow players as the cost of doing business slowly. Strokes and DQ’s aren’t so easily discounted in the era of FedEx Cup points and playoffs.

Slow play usually involves the same repeat offenders, so why should those players begin every tournament with an unblemished record? Treat them as society does recidivists: a probationary period with less latitude and harsher penalties until their conduct warrants a clean slate. Only then will the Tour’s policies protect every player rather than the worst offenders.

Let us learn from that wise golf fan Cicero: “Any man can make mistakes,” he wrote, “but only an idiot persists in his error.”, March 17, 2019.

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