Na business like slow business for put-upon galleries
A difficulty in addressing the perennial issue of slow play is being able to offer hope of a possible solution. It seems that where this particular golfing problem is concerned officials are locked in a time-warp from which they are either unwilling or unable to extricate themselves.
There were signs an answer might be at hand with the recent announcement of the 'Green - i', a Finnish-developed satellite system to which Irish professional Peter Lawrie is lending support. In fact, it is to be given a trial run by the European Tour at the BMW Championship this week.
The system involves a small computer chip which can be fitted easily to the badge worn by tournament players on their trouser-belt. Then, from transmitted data, referees can pinpoint the location of a delay on the course and head to the problem spot immediately.
All of which sounds very encouraging, until you talk to Pádraig Harrington, who has had his own problems with officials in this area. "There's not a thing that tournament referees don't already know," he said, when informed of the device. "They know the exact pace of play of every player out there; who picks up time when they need to; who doesn't. That's what they do all day."
Still, he conceded that the device couldn't do any harm. "The more information the better," he said. "It may highlight players who are slower than they think they are, which is a big issue."
Slow play can be literally painful to watch, as Kevin Na demonstrated at Sawgrass last weekend with his repeated waggling before executing a shot. One couldn't help thinking he would have been better occupied doing this in front of a trained psychologist than inflicting it on a television audience.
Tiger Woods, himself a brisk player, was moved to remark of the laggards: "Fine them shots. People don't realise how valuable shots can be."
Harrington took a broader view. "We need a set of enforced guidelines to ensure that you can't deliberately slow down play or take undue time over a shot," he said. "If you feel the need of extra time, you should have to make it up or create it, by walking a bit quicker, for instance, to a problem situation."
Yet US Tour commissioner Tim Finchem, a man with the power to enforce existing rules, was quoted last weekend as saying: "I actually think we might want to experiment with penalty shots for players who play slowly. But I don't think it will make any difference." How reassuring is that!
On being informed of Harrington's remarks about the omniscience of referees, John Paramor said: "He's pretty much spot on. We're very much aware of where all the groups are and which players are slower than others. So I would suggest that a locating microchip would be surplus to requirements."
To his credit, the European Tour's chief referee penalised American Steve Lowery a stroke for slow play during the 2004 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits.
"There are a lot of factors involved," he went on. "I've been working on tour for some years and when I started, a 6,800-yard golf course was big. Now you could be talking about 7,800 yards. So the actual distance players are walking has increased by as much as 15 per cent.
"We're making greens faster; fairways are narrower, faster and firmer and we're making rough more impenetrable. In fact, we're trying to make the game as difficult as we possibly can, while attempting to make players go faster. I'm sorry. It doesn't work."
This would suggest he was on the players' side. "Well, I'm employed by the organisation which represents the players," he admitted. "But that doesn't mean I won't penalise a competitor if he's doing something wrong, as in playing too slowly. Everything we do now to a golf course actually has a detrimental effect on the pace of play, yet it is necessary to provide an adequate test for today's golfers. That's where we are."
When Christy O'Connor won the Martini Tournament at Wentworth in 1964, he played the last two rounds on the Saturday, when his final putt dropped at about 3.05 in the afternoon. With a break for lunch, each of his rounds took a little over three hours. This coming weekend, rounds will be closer to five hours.
Paramor believes that the emphasis on yardages, introduced by Jack Nicklaus around O'Connor's time, was the first thing to adversely affect the pace of play. But that's in tournament golf.
Where I play the game is essentially the same test that it was 30 years ago, yet the pace of play has slowed beyond belief during that time. Why? As I have pointed out before in these columns, people have become increasingly selfish, giving less and less thought to others.
Meanwhile, audiences are declining in tournament golf where spectators, with no shortage of counter-attractions, are less willing to tolerate the self-indulgent Kevin Nas of this world. And no lesson seems to have been learned from the six-hour rounds which effectively killed the much-loved World Cup.
People like Paramor are but servants of the European Tour's tournament committee. Comprising whom? The players no less. And the Americans have a similar structure. Which would suggest that it's long past the time when the players seriously set about solving a problem very much of their own making.
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