Slow play is a problem in golf. It’s been a problem for as long as there have been golfers who play faster than others, meaning forever. However, as more people commentate on pro tournament action in real time, following their every impulse, the chorus of people singing for better enforcement of pace-of-play rules has grown.
While many pro golfers might disagree with this view, there is no circumstance in which J.B. Holmes should have been given a pass for taking 4 minutes, 10 seconds to execute a conflicted layup on the 72nd hole at the 2018 Farmers Insurance Open. Technically, it took longer than that. Ryan Palmer went through his entire decision-making process and laid up ahead of Holmes, giving him time to walk through the shot with his caddie and be ready to pull the trigger. Holmes hadn’t even pulled a club by the time it was his turn, something that makes ready-golf advocates like myself cringe.
The situation was simple enough, with Holmes needing an eagle for a playoff. However, with a tricky, swirling wind and a big, fat pond in front of the green and the Sunday hole location, the long-hitter was torn. Wait out the wind and go for it, or lay up and try to hole out for a tying eagle, as unlikely as that would be? After hedging toward going for it for minutes, Holmes ultimately clubbed down and laid up. He didn’t hole out for eagle.
Afterward, Holmes told Golf Channel he took that long because he was still trying to win the golf tournament. The natural reaction is, “Dude, you laid up.” But pro golfers are weird. At this same tournament, Phil Mickelson had former caddie Jim Mackay tend the damn flag for a third shot he needed to hole to have a chance to win. He almost did it. So that decision, of how to best approach pulling off something you might do a handful of times in 1,000 holes played in a season, is perhaps a delusional one to start, but it is one pros wrestle with in these situations. After all, winning is worth way more than second place.
Does that entitle Holmes, however, to hijack the hole from his other playing competitors, including Alex Noren, who still had to hit next? No. Noren then pumped his second shot way long of the green, requiring a drop from grandstands that led to a playoff spot-clinching par. Maybe if he didn’t have to wait 4 minutes for Holmes to feel out an unpredictable breeze, Noren would’ve had a wind pattern he liked, found the green and won in regulation.
Holmes wasn’t concerned about his playing competitors, though. He hasn’t been his entire career, and he laid out his philosophy in 2008, saying, “You’re playing for $1 million. If someone thinks I’m slow or taking too long, I don’t care.”
That’s a lame, selfish view. There’s a lot on the line for most every player, every week on the PGA Tour. Every FedEx Cup point matters. Finishes mean getting world ranking points or into future events. The dollars sure as hell matter. So, being able to take longer than it takes an Olympic sprinter to run a mile to hit a golf shot — even if Holmes had chosen to go for it — is unacceptable.
Golf has rules about pace of play. Specifically, the PGA Tour has a pace-of-play policy. However, to even get monitored by PGA Tour rules officials, a group has to somewhat egregiously fall behind the expected pace, known as time par. Then, once the group is on the clock and individual shots are timed, a player has to have two bad times to get a one-stroke penalty — something that hasn’t happened in a PGA Tour event in more than 25 years. And the PGA Tour isn’t trying to make their players look bad, particularly on the 72nd hole of a tournament when a players has a chance to win, even if it’s a remote one. What officials wants to insert themselves in the tournament storyline by declaring a player should be penalized for slow play and, therefore, lose a chance to win? None.
That’s why the answer to the PGA Tour’s pace of play problem is one which takes the human component out of it. It’s a shot clock.
Written into the PGA Tour’s pace-of-play policy is guidelines for how long each shot should take. Generally, a player is allotted 40 second to complete a stroke from when it is deemed their turn (and, on the green, once they’re able to replace their ball). If they’re the first to hit a shot in the group off the tee, on the approach or on/around the green, they’re allotted 60 seconds. Fire up a shot clock with a timer, and plant them right next to the standard bearer. Run the clock, and if a player doesn’t make time, they get a penalty. Done. No decision for a third party to make.
That sounds kind of cruel, though. There are times when conditions and situations require players to think out their shot a little more. It makes sense, then, to let players bank time they didn’t use on prior shots so that they can save them for awkward situations later in the round or tournament. If Holmes played quickly all week and saved up lots of time, then, under this approach, he probably would have an extra 3 minutes, 30 seconds to pull the trigger on that second shot on the 72nd hole. Holmes, like many players, slows down the deeper into a tournament he goes, so this approach wouldn’t unduly speed him up when he felt he needed an extra moment.
The PGA Tour could even take a cue from the World Poker Tour and Executive Director Matt Savage. Savage has been implementing a poker version of a shot clock — called the Action Clock — at select tournaments, with 30 seconds to decide whether to call, raise or fold. In addition, he’s giving players time chips, allowing them to throw them in as needed for an extra 30 seconds to make a key decision during a hand. If a player’s time expires, their hand is dead and folded. Most pros love what Savage is doing because it’s fair but keeps things moving, especially around pay bubbles when players stall with the hope of backing into a higher pay position. That isn’t a motivation in golf, but unnecessary stalling is definitely a real problem. We could give players one 60-second chip per tournament beyond the banked time, just to make certain we’re being fair. That’s what this approach would do, affording players more time in key situations but not so much time that fellow players feel iced or fans get bored.
The European Tour is going to experiment with a shot clock in 2018, turning the Austrian Open into an experimental event using their version of it. Their CEO, Keith Pelley, has indicated this is more of a Petri dish than anything, but perhaps what’s learned from that week could offer more insights as to why slow play happens and what could finally solve the riddle of slow golf.