The U.S. Open is traditionally known for two things: tough course set-ups that result in slow play.
This week's tournament at The Olympic Club in San Francisco comes on the heels of three incidents on professional golf's highest tours that will raise the possibility that at some point a golfer is going to get penalized because they aren't playing fast enough.
Slow play, which can delay telecasts, disrupt players and bore fans, is back in golf’s spotlight after three recent incidents:
• The LPGA's Morgan Pressel was penalized with the loss of a hole after it was deemed she took too much time to play in the semifinal of a match-play event.
• The PGA's Kevin Na was warned by officials, and ridiculed by most everyone else, for a sun-dial pre-shot routine during The Players Championship.
• The European Tour's Ross Fisher, one shot of the lead in the final round at the Wales Open, was docked a stroke for taking too long to play.
Three examples in a a few weeks after nothing more than grumbling for years … is glacial golf that big of an issue? It depends upon who you ask.
Some players say the issue is overblown.
“In my opinion it’s been blown way out of proportion,” Nationwide Tour pro Casey Wittenberg said. “You make golf courses as hard condition-wise as we play week in and week out, sometimes it takes a while to process what you are trying to do.”
Others say it’s past time for golf’s governing bodies to hand out severe penalties.
“Slow play is a massive issue on all tours and it needs to be corrected,” PGA Tour veteran Jason Bohn said.
The United States Golf Association, the sport's governing body in this country, doesn't have a rule against slow play. It has only a guideline that “players should play at a good pace” and “players should be ready to play as soon as it is their turn to play.” The USGA does grant tournament committees the right to penalize slow players with everything from a stroke penalty up to disqualification for multiple violations. PGA Tour events are governed by the the USGA's rules, but employs its own pace of play policy. The PGA Tour expects a group to keep up with the group ahead, never falling a hole behind. Those who don't will be warned and timed to make sure they are playing at a reasonable pace, like Na was. A second bad time can result in a fine and penalty stroke, which hasn't happened since 1995. Usually, the only penalty is a fine, which players say isn't a deterrent.
An acceptable pace can be hard to gauge because a golfer’s decision-making process can be affected by everything from the length of the rough, to a pin placement, to the speed or direction of the wind.
The difference in the Pressel and Fisher situations illustrate the difficulty in deciding when to enforce policies.
Golf Channel on-course reporter Phil Parkin, who was there for both situations, described the Pressel situation as the worst decision he’s seen in almost 30 years in professional golf. It was actually Pressel’s opponent who caused them to be warned. Pressel was then penalized because it was decided she took to long to play a subsequent hole. Parkin said she couldn't have played any faster because the wind changed just before her tee shot, blowing harder than it had all week, which resulted in her having to switch clubs and go through her pre-shot routine again. He said the Fisher situation was the correct call because he was taking too long for no reason.
The Pressel situation, which occurred in one of the LPGA’s marquee tournaments, has bearing on the U.S. Open because, with so much at stake, every golfer in the field will want to make sure they are comfortable with every shot.
“The more money they are playing for, the slower some players are going to be,” Golf Channel on-course reporter Billy Andrade said. “There’s so much more on the line right now, it just brings on a more deliberate way of playing.”
Wittenberg, currently playing on the Nationwide Tour but who has also played on the PGA Tour, said that as long as the PGA Tour continues to make courses hard, fast and firm – like The Olympic Club will be this week – there will be more shots out of the rough so slow play will remain an issue.
“It’s just kind of part of the game,” Wittenberg said. “If people are maxing out their time but not going over, I really don’t know what the tour can do to change that.”
Bohn said a solution starts on the junior level. The American Junior Golf Association is trying. It began a checkpoint system in 2002 that has evolved into a red card/green card system during tournaments in which players are notified at six checkpoints throughout the course if they are keeping up with the pace of play (within 14 minutes of the preceding group). Groups that receive more than one red card (a combination of bad times) will receive a one-stroke penalty. The penalty may be given to each player in the group, or to the player that is slowing the group down. If the player or group receives a third red card, it will receive another penalty. The 2,509 red cards given during 85 tournaments in 2011 resulted in nine penalties, which the AJGA says is proof that the system can speed up play.
“We put the onus on the players to understand their position on the course and to play fast,” said AJGA communications officer Rob Coleman.
The professional level hasn’t instituted a card system, but there have been other ideas.
Andrade said it was once suggested in a players meeting that a shot clock be put behind the green. It didn’t make it out of the room. To make the pros speed up, most say the best solution is to immediately add strokes, not levy fines, which are usually just a few thousand dollars in tournaments with purses of millions.
“Fines don’t do anything,” Bohn said. “Shots will make a world of difference.”
Parkin said strokes will work, but believes if the officials will stay on top of the slow players, they will speed up and no penalties will be needed.
Though the problem seems relatively new, it actually goes back to one of the men who made golf the popular sport it is today: Jack Nicklaus.
NBC analyst Johnny Miller remembers that up until 1966 Nicklaus would frequently walk from the fairway to the green, calculate the yardage, and then walk all the way back to his ball.
Because he did it, other golfers began to walk off their yardage. Though no one does the Nicklaus walk-off now, other time-consuming pre-shot habits have creeped in that milk seconds off the clock.
“If there would have been a slow play policy in place, he would really have had a problem with that, because they just basically didn't have it back then,” Miller said.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.