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About the Pope Of Slope

Pope Of Slope

Who's to blame for waiting game?

Agonizingly slow play is a problem all over. But it's not just the players who are at fault.

Sunday, June 30, 1996

By Joe Logan

If you're a golfer, chances are you know this scene all too well:

Hot from draining a side-hill six-footer to save par, you charge off the green psyched up for more glory. But then suddenly, on the next tee is a nightmare: golfers everywhere - two, even three groups, already waiting, stacked up like so many planes over O'Hare, miserable as they share looks of frustration and resignation.

You look up the fairway. One guy is leaning on his club, another is dozing in his cart. And in the group in front of them, some numbskull is plumb-bobbing a one-footer as if he were Nick Faldo on Masters Sunday.

ARGH! The misery of s-l-o-w play.

No matter where you go - public courses, pricey resort tracks, exclusive country clubs, even the PGA tour - slow play has infected golf like a plague, turning pleasant four-hour loops into six-hour afternoons of hit, wait, hit, wait, hit, wait . . . agony.

"It's the only thing that I know of that can really take the fun out of golf," said Jack McMahon, a local attorney and avid golfer. "It is annoying, it's aggravating, and there's just no need for it."

Slow play has become such a problem that the PGA tour has invoked a 1-stroke penalty for offenders. The PGA of America conducted a 1992 study to identify the problems and suggest solutions. And the United States Golf Association has come up with a Pace Rating System, which evaluates courses for playability and determines how long a round should take.

Suffice it to say that the USGA believes that except for severe weather conditions, extreme difficulty of a course or high-stakes tournament pressure, a round of golf should rarely take more than four hours.

Perhaps the most telling indication that slow play has become a plague is that one enterprising civil engineer, Bill Yates of suburban Los Angeles, has formed a consulting firm to advise courses on how to speed up play.

"Slow play is a problem everywhere," said Yates, president of William Yates & Associates of Rolling Hills Estates, Calif.

Slow play may be a problem everywhere, but the PGA's '92 study hits close to home for a lot of area golfers. To wit: Slow play is worst in the Northeast and Midwest, in large metropolitan areas, and not surprisingly, on daily-fee and municipal courses.

In other words, someone could have illustrated the study with a picture from a Philadelphia public course.

Curiously, though, neither Yates nor Dean Knuth, the USGA's point man on slow play, puts the blame exclusively at the feet of that numbskull who takes too long to line up his putt.

Nor do they put all the blame on the fivesome that doesn't know to let you through when the players have two open holes in front of them, or on the "cart path" golfer who never takes more than one club to his ball, or on the fellow who takes five practice swings before every shot.

They don't even blame the guy who insists on looking for a lost ball for 10 minutes, or the slowpoke who is never ready to hit when it's his turn, or the rank novice who should be learning the game on the range instead of the course.

As culpable as golfers themselves are, says the USGA's Knuth, "slow play is more a management problem than a player problem."

Knuth and Yates point out several management offenses, chief among them overcrowding - a common problem on public courses.

"What we've found is that the optimal interval between tee times is 10 minutes or more," Knuth said. "But many courses allow only a six- or seven-minute interval, and as soon as they get to the first par 3, they start to stack up. Our studies have shown that having six-minute intervals instead of 10-minute intervals adds more than an hour to a round."

Yates tends to get called in when a course begins to develop a reputation for slow play - in other words, for crisis management. But lately, he says, he has been getting called in earlier - during the design phase - to make recommendations before the first bulldozer moves the first mound of dirt.

"We can deal with issues like the distance from the green to the next tee or the sequencing of the holes," he said.

The sequencing of holes is important, he says, because traffic tends to bog down at the first par 3, which unlike a par 4 or par 5, can accommodate only one group at a time.

Another major problem is rangers - timid rangers or, worse, nonexistent rangers. So that the course doesn't bottleneck, Knuth says, rangers need to be aggressive - polite but insistent that guilty golfers pick up the pace.

Cart policies also can hinder the speed of play. Believe it or not, says Knuth, a round of golf takes about the same time whether you're riding or walking. But when a course restricts carts to cart paths, it increases the time of a round by about 12 percent, or 30 minutes.

Many courses, say Knuth, Yates and other experts, need to do a better job of adding visible yardage markers, so golfers aren't left to wonder or wander.

On a blind hole, a course can erect a small sign on the tees designating a distant tree or other landmark as the ideal direction for a shot.

On a hole where high rough is likely to snare and hide many a ball, slowing down play, a course might consider cutting the grass lower in that spot.

Courses also might consider adopting the USGA's Pace Rating System. If they do, players will from time to time encounter a small sign that informs them of how long it should have taken to get to reach that point.

Because of the nuisance of slow play, many clubs and courses across the country have become increasingly vigilant.

Knuth tells of one course in Colorado, at Castle Pines Country Club, where they'll issue a "slow play" citation if a group falls too far behind. Once you've been ticketed, you can't return until you've attended a "fast play" clinic conducted by the pro.

And at one municipal loop in Colorado, Knuth says, the worst slowpokes are actually taken off the course and given refunds.

Closer to home, probably no one has been more diligent in waging war on slow play than LuLu Country Club in North Hills, where officials drew the line in the sand 10 years ago.

After much consideration, the club's golf committee concluded that any group that took more than four hours to play a round, or that finished more than 15 minutes behind the previous group, was guilty of slow play.

From the LuLu pro shop, head pro Jack MacCarty and his staff monitor when groups tee off and when they finish. Slow players are highlighted in yellow marker on tee-time sheets, which eventually find their way to the golf committee.

In the case of first-time offenders, everybody in the group gets a warning letter from the club. Second offense, you're limited as to when you can play. Third offense, you'll find yourself explaining to the club's board why your golf privileges shouldn't be revoked.

"It's not life or death," MacCarty said. "We do give people a chance to offer an explanation."

No one has ever become a three-time offender, MacCarty says, but the club has sent out about 30 warning letters.

During LuLu club tournaments, slow players are slapped with 1-stroke penalties, just like on the PGA tour. In one tournament, back when the PGA tour and LuLu leveled 2-stroke raps on the knuckles, the leaders were penalized and fell to third.

"The people who get nailed never feel like they're wrong," MacCarty said. "But I'll tell you what: The next day, they fly around the course."


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