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Concrete solutions

Stuck by slow play? Here's how you can cut an hour from your round

By Dean Knuth
Golf Digest

Editor's note: Tired of slow play? Then don't just sit there whining about it, DO something. We turned to former U.S. Golf Association handicapping guru Dean Knuth for solutions, and he offers tested tips that have cut anywhere from half an hour to one full hour -- that's right, one hour -- from the average time for a round of golf at courses across the country. Sound good? Read on.

Three million golfers quit the game every year, and it's safe to say that slow play is one of the leading culprits. Just last year, more than half the respondents to a survey said that frustration over slow play has caused them to quit and walk in during a round. Some of them kept right on walking.

Respondents to a survey rate their own pace of play versus other golfers:
Q: How would you rate your own pace of play?
Fast: 57.8 percent
Average: 37.4 percent
Slow: 4.8 percent
Q: How would you rate most golfers' pace of play?
Slow: 56.2 percent
Average: 41.8 percent
Fast: 2.0 percent

Over the years I've researched pace of play and interviewed many slow golf groups -- ones that were out of position by at least a hole. In every case, these snails have been totally unaware that they were slow, or they didn't care a bit that they were holding up traffic.

How bad is it? When we surveyed golfers this year (see accompanying chart), 58 percent called themselves fast players, and fewer than 5 percent labeled themselves slow. But those same folks said 56 percent of the other players are slow and only 2 percent are fast. It's always the other guy.

(If you're not sure about your own pace, try this test the next time you're on the course: If you can walk to the tee -- or to the closest ball from the hole -- and the group ahead has already moved on so that you can hit immediately, you may be behind.) Beyond that, I define slow play as any round that takes more than four hours on any course with a Slope Rating under 135. Fast play is a 3 �-hour round.

Playing vs. positioning
It takes about an hour to "play" 18 holes of golf. The other 2 � to 4 � hours is "logistical positioning" -- getting to the next shots, with the right equipment.

Tracking golfers on a full course is a classic "queuing" problem: The slowest group dictates the pace of play for everyone behind them. Any group that gets out of position -- especially early in the day -- will affect many groups after it.

Beginners, when paired together, can be a major source of slow play. Contrary to claims by some men's groups, higher-handicap women are not necessarily slow. In sheer numbers, there are far more 15- to 20-handicap men who are slow players than any other "type" out there.

Two days spent following groups at Torrey Pines outside San Diego and a day watching resort golfers at Pebble Beach showed that average men are as likely to be slow as high-handicap women. A short-hitting woman typically will walk right up to her ball and hit it again. The slow-playing men were very deliberate on every stroke, often taking two or more practice swings. They would stand and watch each shot until it stopped and then slowly put the club away and move on. When I approached them to say that I was from the USGA and that I had determined that they were a slow group, they were shocked. Typical response: "I've never been told that I'm slow, and I don't believe it." Or there was indignation: "I paid good money to enjoy my round, and I deserve to take as much time as I need."

Though it may sound harsh, golf courses should not let a group of four beginners play in a morning tee time -- their times should be held to 2:30 p.m. and later. I recently had a company run four focus groups with people who hit golf balls at driving ranges but have never played on a golf course. The two groups of men and the two groups of women said they are intimidated about going onto a course without knowing what is expected of them, and they want a "guide" to show them the procedures. I suspect that many people who have transitioned from the range to a course were never trained in expectations for pace of play.

Some public courses require proof of a USGA Handicap Index before a group can book a tee time. In Sweden, no one gets a certificate permitting play on a member golf course until they have received classroom training, taken a test and received instruction from a golf professional. Tee times are not granted without proof of the playing certificate.

Practical solutions
My favorite program is the one in use at the Country Club at Castle Pines in Castle Rock, Colo. A pace-of-play board is on display at the clubhouse, which shows the names of players in the group, the start time, finish time, and number of minutes behind the previous group. If the finish time of a group is more than 10 minutes slower than the time of the preceding group (and more than the prescribed pace), the golf committee sends a slow-play warning letter to each member of the slow group. If a player receives a second warning letter, eligibility for morning rounds on weekends is suspended for one month.

Groups receiving a warning letter can ask for a review. A small percentage of members is offended by receiving a warning letter; the great majority endorses the program.

The fact is, a golf course has to implement -- and enforce -- a pace-of-play management program, or else nothing will change. If your course is wary of offending slow players, keep this in mind: Slow players are ruining the day's play for all the groups stacked up behind them.

After the first year of the Castle Pines program, the number of first-warning letters was down 40 to 45 percent. The number of second-warning letters was down from seven to one.

A golf course has to provide feedback to slow golfers. Rangers or "greeters" are the most inexpensive way to do that. A marshal's time matrix at the club shows which hole each group should be playing at any given time. The marshal quickly identifies a group that has fallen behind and gives tips for catching up or encourages the group to skip holes. Bottom line: The playing time at the club is down from five or more hours to less than four hours.

"You can't fight slow play without teeth in the program, and we've got an awful lot of teeth," says Nigel Rouse, the head professional. "If you're a public course, you take the key to the cart. If you're a private club, you restrict the tee times or the ability to enter events."

There's one other benefit to all players, Rouse says. "When someone's making plans, they can say, 'I'm teeing off at 10, so I'll be done by 2 and I'll meet you then'-- and they can count on it."

Managing the course
The biggest problem in course management is overloading the course. This happens when tee-time intervals are less than 10 minutes apart. A course using six-minute intervals is guaranteed to get more goand guaranteed to create more angry golfers. Overloading causes backups on the first par 3 or a short par 5, where better golfers wait for the green to clear before they hit their second shots.

The biggest problem with overloading a course is the psychological aspect to slow play. If golfers get held up fairly early, they lose their expectation for fast play and will play deliberately. The difference is an hour or more in total time of play.

Another key point: Don't let players tee off on the first hole as soon as the golfers in the fairway hit their second shots. On a par 4, make them wait until the group ahead reaches the green. You will be amazed at how much the pace on your course will improve.

I also like the Pace Setter program at Otter Creek in Columbus, Ind. It incorporates some of the suggestions above, and adds these:

The starter writes the name of each group on each cart so they are easily identifiable. The cart that starts play on the hour is flagged. Marshals can tell by the locations of flagged carts how the following groups are keeping pace.

One other thought on carts: My research shows that restricting carts to paths adds a whopping half-hour to the time of a round.

Pace Rating System
When I was on the USGA staff, I developed the USGA's Pace Rating System, which uses hole length and obstacle difficulty to determine the time that it should take to play each hole.

A typical par 4 could have a "time par" of 12 minutes. A par 5 might take 18 minutes and a par 3 might take nine minutes. The total of 18 time pars plus four minutes for a halfway-house stop adds up to the Pace Rating. Regional and state golf associations can determine the time pars for any course, and hundreds have been issued around the country. Some courses have incorporated the time pars into the starting times, and the result is a card or scorecard that shows 18 tee times -- in effect, the time that each group is due on each tee. Rangers can speak with authority when they state that a group is, say, nine minutes late to the fourth tee. Time par works, and it has speeded up play by at least 30 minutes at every course that has implemented the program. .

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