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From The Cradle to the grave

10 April, 2018

From The Cradle to the grave

Time is golf’s Achilles' heel. Often it takes too long to play eighteen holes, or at least it feels too long when you’re playing at snail’s pace behind groups of slower golfers. Waiting to play your shot time after time is no fun at all. I actually become murderous. I’ve never had much patience.

When I first started playing golf some 30 years ago, I thought it was peculiar that some old-fashioned clubs insisted on two-ball or foursomes play only. I thought it was contrived to expect, or insist, on a round to be completed in less than three hours. These days it’s not unusual for male and female competitions (amateur and professional) to take five hours. You can add on a bit more time for medal play.

I was invited to play in the Dutch Senior Masters at The Dutch near Rotterdam last autumn. The main event is a similar format to the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship where an amateur is paired with a pro and the best score counts in a two-day (Fri-Sat) team competition. Each professional’s individual score is counted on the Friday and Saturday and then the senior pros play their third and final round on Sunday without the amateurs in tow.

The rules for the amateurs are simple – pick your ball up if you can’t beat the pro. Six hours after our Friday tee time, as the sun was beginning to set over Rotterdam, we putted out on the final green. The packed lunch and hot soup and sandwiches at the halfway hut were life saving. Thankfully I didn’t run out of cigarettes.

My game largely deserted me for the two days, but in respect of the rules, and my pro partner’s well being, I duly picked up on many holes. I didn’t see any other amateurs picking up, probably they were either much better golfers than me or they had a much longer handicap. Maybe if golfers (pros and amateurs) spent less time thinking about the technical side of the game they’d play quicker and post a better score?

If I’d played well in Holland, perhaps I’d feel differently about a six-hour round? Maybe, but I doubt it. So what can be done to avoid golf’s Achilles' heel, which I’ll call golf’s grave?

First, let’s consider what is slow play. Is slow play when your group does not keep pace with the group in front? Or is it slow play if the group behind catches your group up? Maybe the group in front has lost a hole or more from the group in front of them, but will they let your group through? Should you ask to play through? If you and your partners are the only golfers on the course does it matter how long your round takes?

Cart path only rules contribute significantly to slow play. Golfers leaving bags, trolleys or carts in the wrong place and not thinking ahead to where they’re going next wastes time. Standing around watching others in their group hit rather than walking ahead to their own ball and being ready to play when it’s their turn loses minutes. Worst of all, groups that do not care if they’re holding up the group behind – heaven forbid letting faster golfers play through.

It all boils down to attitude, etiquette and awareness. But hold on a minute, isn’t there a rule for slow play? There is. But who abides by the rule, who cares and who enforces it?

Slow play is supposedly governed under Rule 6; 6-7 Undue Delay; Slow Play – “The player must play without undue delay and in accordance with any pace of play guidelines…” Unfortunately, in my experience within amateur golf, most golf clubs don’t take a blind bit of notice of this rule, let alone enforce it. It’s those old fashioned golf clubs that insist on two-ball or foursomes play that take pace of play seriously. Most other golf clubs know who the slowcoaches are, but few do anything about it.

My guess is that every golfer values playing at their own pace. I know I do. The problem is that we all tend to play the game differently. There are those that are forever thinking about where to leave their bags to enable a quick getaway. There are those that don’t want to spend much time looking for lost balls. There are golfers that don’t need to take a dozen practice swings. Some golfers walk faster than others. Some golfers don’t like to chat on the tee but would rather talk while walking between shots.

It all comes down to “awareness”. Golfers should ask themselves “where am I relative to the group ahead and in relation to the club’s expectations on Pace of Play”. The problem/solution should be obvious.

Fergal O’Leary, our US Consultant and self-confessed golf course addict, is a golfer who likes to get on with things. In the late 1980s, he’d go down to County Limerick with his cousins to play at Bruff Pitch & Putt. They’d walk around carrying a sand wedge and a putter, with tees and Commando golf balls stuffed in their pockets. Little did they realise that they were building a foundation for their short-game and shot-making ability.

Fergal recently visited Pinehurst to play the new 9-hole par three course. The starter told Fergal to leave his golf bag with him as he pointed towards the first tee. Fergal had just celebrated his 35th birthday and once again he found himself walking to the first tee carrying a sand wedge and putter (he went old school and left the fancy cover in his bag).

“There’s something really sentimental about carrying a couple of clubs in your hands as you navigate around this hugely fun 9-hole, 750-yard short course, created by the talented Gil Hanse”, said Fergal with a broad smile on his face. “There are no buggies or range finders to slow things down. The next tee is always within arm's reach of the previous green. As the name suggests (“The Cradle”), the course’s simplicity brings us back to the days when we had all of our lives ahead of us and when golf was a much less ‘technology’ dominated game.

While Gil was challenged with adding his name to a golf course at such an iconic American venue, he brought back to me what I remembered as a young boy learning the game in Ireland:

  1. Hurry up!
  2. Use your eyes and mind to judge yardage
  3. Feel the distance, let the shot go and enjoy the experience
  4. Spend more time practicing the short-game

The ‘Sandbelt-like’ scrubland visuals across the short course were really enjoyable, as are the impressive Hanse green-complexes which will mature beautifully. Despite being on a smaller plot of land, Hanse successfully laid out the course with changes in direction and even some gentle movement in elevation. At any point during the round you can see 20 to 40 golfers on the course moving quickly, picking up and placing down clubs on the grass and embracing the golf course that adds enormous value to the already impressive Pinehurst portfolio. It’s the best 40 minutes of your day – and replay rounds are free after you pay the initial (relatively modest for Pinehurst) green fee.”

Unlike Fergal, you may not be heading to Pinehurst any time soon, but I wholeheartedly agree with his sentiments. So much so, in fact, that I joined a 9-hole golf club so I can escape from the office, play nine holes and be tethered back at the desk in about an hour and a half.

The other reason I joined a 9-hole short course was to get my handicap down. I was arrogantly confident that I’d shave at least a shot off my handicap by playing a track that measures less than 2,300 yards from the tips. How wrong could I be? After playing more than fifty competitive rounds at Great Torrington Golf Club my handicap has actually gone up by one full shot. I’ve still not figured out why. My short game today is as good as it has ever been and my long game is no worse.

I pray to the powers that be to stop lengthening courses for the professionals. Just let them all compete on sub 7,000-yard tracks… to hell with the scores. Who cares if the winner shoots 30-under par or better? I’d like to see a birdie fest at a course I too can play and enjoy from the same tees as the pros. I won’t shoot 10-under, but I might beat the pros on a couple of holes, as I achieved in Holland.

It’s pointless trying to keep up with technology and sheer madness to lengthen courses just for the sake of accommodating a once-a-year pro tournament. Why not let the pros burn up the course if they can? Isn’t golf supposed to be fun?

Matt Ward, one of our regular contributors, has a favourite motto: “You can print money but you can't print time. Once time is gone it’s gone.” He reckons we should make the most of every opportunity to play golf whenever possible. I wholeheartedly agree, but emphasise “play”. Playing is fun but waiting for others to play is like being stuck in a traffic jam.

Nobody wants to admit to being slow. But if you are slow – and only you know that – just look in the mirror, step aside and let Speedy Gonzales through. If there isn’t a group behind, respect the policies around Slow Play anyway.

Regardless of my musings, I doubt anything will happen anytime soon to address the issues surrounding slow play. But maybe someone will read this and accept that perhaps they are part of the problem – who knows I may be part of the problem too.

They say patience is a virtue – maybe I should stop digging my grave.

Keith Baxter
Top 100 Golf Courses


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