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Guest Editor: The Biggest Threat to Golf! Slow Play
By Vartan Kupelian

Vartan Kupelian

Golf, especially in America, has a problem. I'm not talking about coefficient of restitution or balls that fly through space like meteors. No, I'm not talking about anything that complicated or technical.

The United States Golf Association will figure out what to do with thin-faced drivers and multi-covered balls. That's easy.

What I'm talking about isn't so easy. It should be, but it isn't. It isn't easy because after years of trying, hundreds of hours of debate and discussion, and enough written words to fill a dozen Encyclopedia Brittanicas, nobody has succeeded in finding a solution. In this country.

Here's the puzzling part. There are some very smart people in golf. Smart people administer the game. Smart people play the game. Smart people make rules for the game. Smart people design and construct the courses on which we play the game. But nobody has figured out what to do about my big problem. Our big problem - yours and mine. Every golfer's big problem.

Now, you're saying what's he talking about and why is he venting about whatever he's venting about? And why is it taking him so long to get to the point. Why is he so slow?

I'm venting because I've been given a forum and I think S-L-O-W P-L-A-Y is the biggest threat facing golf, even bigger than trampoline-effecting-moonshooting-multi-planet-traversing-poppin'-pillsthat never come down. Slow play. That's what bothers me and I'm sure it bothers you. If it doesn't, it should.

Everybody is searching for solutions - sometimes the quest is successful, other times not - for everything under golf's sun except what I believe to be the most pressing problem requiring the most urgent attention. Too many people have just thrown up their hands in defeat and said we'll just have to live with slow play.

Why that is, I don't know but I can guess: It's a hard fix and nobody wants to tackle the underlying reasons. Slow play takes the fun out of golf. If you've never had the opportunity or luxury to play an 18-hole round with your best pal in under two hours, you can't appreciate what I'm talking about. If you've never played with three of your best friends in under three hours, you've got no clue what I'm talking about.

They do that in Scotland, you know. They play fast. We should learn from that, but we can be stubborn that way. Americans point out all the reasons why we can't be like the Scots. I point out the only reason why we aren't. It's a mind-set. The Scots expect to play quickly, without undue delay. We are conditioned to play slow. It's amazing that a society predicated on instant gratification - fast food joins, credit cards and the rest - has its behavior modified on the golf course.

My brother and I played one of those fancy new northern Michigan courses last summer. We were first off at just before 8 a.m. The starter went over the basics and then told us, in a straight face, that we were expected to play in four hours and 30 minutes. I asked him why we weren't expected to play in three hours and 30 minutes and the starter said, "Nobody can play this course that fast."

Even a twosome? First off? Wanna bet?

We dawdled. We're both course raters for Golf Week so we took our time, carefully studying contours, green complexes, fairway bunkers and all that. Finally, as we crossed over to the back nine we again encountered the starter.

"You guys skip a couple of holes?" he said, still with a straight face.

Nope. Played 'em all. In an hour and 20 minutes - but only because we weren't trying to play particularly fast.

Slow play has reached epidemic proportions. The solution is to educate the golfer. All of us in the industry are doing a rotten job of it. It's also to educate course architects and course operators- and everybody else. Let's start right now so we can all enjoy golf more.

The design of modern American courses makes faster pace of play nearly impossible. You know that. I know that. And we have no control over it. You can add 20 minutes to the time it takes to play around of golf just in the cart rides between green and the next tee. I'll admit I don't know what to do about that or cross-hazards, wetlands and all the other things that hinder pace of play. But I do know one thing and I'll offer it as my partial solution. The fascination with multiple tees, a staple of modern course design in America, is misguided. All that does is encourage slow play because it takes the decision-making away from the course operator and designer and places it precisely where it doesn't belong - in the hands of a golfer unable to discern.

The theory behind multiple tees - four, five or more - is to enable golfers of all levels to optimize their own experience and pleasure. In reality, all it does it make things miserable for everybody, including the course operator, because only a very small percentage of golfers - you think it's as high as 15 percent? I don't - know to play the tee commensurate with their ability. Either they don't know or don't care.

For example, on the traditional courses of Scotland there is only one tee to choose from. Once a month, normally on Sunday, golfers play off the medal tee - or what amounts to the tips. It is on that day that a golfer's handicap is established. Every other round during the course of the month is played from the regular tees. The decision is taken out of the golfer's hands. Plus, he's not trying to post a score every time he plays. In Scotland, they're playing alternate shot or best-ball and the ball is in the pocket when it's time to do so.

On the day my brother and I played that fancy new northern Michigan course, there was a group on the seventh tee as we were coming off the 18th green. Two members of the foursome didn't reach the fairway with their drives, a third skanked his tee ball about 60 yards, just barely off the front of the tee. They were playing from the tips. They didn't choose the green markers or the white or the blue or the gold. They went back to the black. They paid a lot of money to play a golf course they had heard a lot about and they were going to get their money's worth, even if it cost them their golfing sanity.

The decision could have been taken out of their hands with one tee, and one tee only.

It wasn't long after that I was sitting in the grill room with a golf professional. Four golfers were on the first tee of his course. The hole is 360 yards from the middle tees, 405 from the back. None of the four golfers reached the 200-yard plate with the tee ball. They were playing from the back and the golf professional was shaking his head. He knew he had a group that would require a minimum of five hours to complete the round - and this is a daily fee course. That would mean fewer people, less revenue and, perhaps worst of all, some displeased customers because they had to wait on every shot.

And that, my friends, is golf's biggest problem. It astonishes me that in this country we haven't done a better job dealing with the issue of slow play. We need to address it - all of us - and the sooner, the better.

On the first tee at Scotscraig Golf Club, not far from St. Andrews, Scotland, is a sign which reads: "You are expected to play in under three hours so that you may enjoy the rest of the day at home with your family or play 18 more holes."

Imagine that. MG

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