Golf at the ready
Slow play is seen as the scourge of modern golf, but a new strategy adopted by the GUI has caught the imagination as a sensible solution
In many people's eyes, slow play is a disease that has infected the modern game. In the search for a cure, purists fear it has already become contagious.
Golf's authorities stand accused of neglect. Those levelling the charges forget that golf is a self-regulating game and players have always had a responsibility to police themselves. In any event, the Golfing Union of Ireland (GUI) - the administrative body of men's amateur golf - has already taken the lead by introducing a range of measures to improve pace of play.
Course set-up has long been a focus for the GUI. With so many of their major championships played on links courses, Ireland's precarious climate can cause havoc.
Last week's AIG Irish Close Championship was staged on the stunning Glashedy Links at Ballyliffin, but for all the beauty of the surroundings, playing golf between an ocean and a mountain is fraught with difficulty when the weather turns wild and a championship links is never kind to players who miss fairways and greens.
On the first day of stroke play qualifying at this year's Close, with winds gusting over 32kph, rounds were taking more than five hours to complete. Recognising the difficulties, players were encouraged to play Ready Golf in round two.
"When you have challenging conditions, a lot of ball searches and provisional balls, playing Ready Golf is a logical reaction to the fact that, quite often, players will be ready to play before those who would be farthest from the hole," explained Mark Wehrly, Championships Manager with the GUI.
"Ready Golf is part of a wider strategy that includes moving tees forward and central hole locations to give players every opportunity to play as quickly as possible," said Wehrly.
"We also had five volunteer referees on the golf course at all times to assist players and to enforce our pace of play regulations, and 13 volunteer ball spotters stationed at various holes."
The impact was significant. Round times plummeted by an average of 45 minutes, with the first group home in four hours and nine minutes. Through a combination of factors, pace of play improved significantly, but it was the Ready Golf approach which captured the imagination, particularly as this was the first time that the GUI had adopted it.
"We'll take some time to review this further and we also need to provide much more education for players and clubs on its implementation. I suspect some players didn't really fully understand the concept in its entirety, but the feedback we've had so far has been encouraging," said Wehrly.
Among the players, the reaction was positive.
"Ready Golf is the way to go, we should be playing that all the time anyway," said Galway's Joe Lyons, a veteran of the Irish amateur circuit and West of Ireland champion in 2007.
He believes times can fall even further.
"Four hours is acceptable, but there's room for improvement," said Lyons, and his peers agree.
"I had never heard of Ready Golf before," said 2013 Irish Amateur Champion Robbie Cannon, another experienced campaigner. "I'm sure it would help if there was a bit more education behind it. Even though we were ahead of time, we were still waiting on every shot."
For Geoff Lenehan, who reached the quarter-finals at this year's Close, these measures are essential.
"It's necessary because it's getting slower and slower and when it is very slow, it is not enjoyable to play," said Lenehan.
"Ready Golf is definitely a help when conditions get bad. It certainly speeds up play and you don't have to worry about dropping your etiquette with your playing partners. It was good that we were told on the first tee that it was in play, it made it easier and made the game flow out there."
Although it seems like slow play is a modern phenomenon, history says otherwise.
"Play in Slow Motion at Lahinch" reads a headline from The Irish Times above a report on the South of Ireland championship at the famous Clare links in 1966.
"Golf in slow motion was the order of the day at Lahinch yesterday as far as some players were concerned, the result being that the qualifying round in the South of Ireland golf championship was unfinished despite an almost dawn-to-dusk effort."
It was reported that players were taking "up to five-and-a-half hours" to get around.
"At one stage they took two-and-a-quarter hours to reach the sixth tee. Earlier, there were six sets waiting on the eighth tee due to lost balls and slow play on the green."
Even if the problem is not a new one, it remains a sore point.
"I've probably been playing championship golf for eight years and it is getting worse and worse," said Portmarnock's Lenehan.
"You see it a lot with inter-club team golf, Senior Cup and Barton Shield, I think the game is overplayed. People watch the final groups on TV playing in a major and think that's the norm, but if you watched a guy who teed it up at 9am on the PGA Tour, he'll play in four hours tops."
Robbie Cannon feels it's time for tough love.
"I think you need to target the slow players. That's the big problem," he said. "There are several players who are always very slow and they need to be targeted and given shot penalties. You just have to be harsh on people."
Pace of play will always be a talking point for golfers. Everyone's time is precious, but slow play has bedevilled the game for decades. It's clear that with the GUI's lead, there can be real and significant change in the future.