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Get a Move On

Don't blame the players in front of you. Five factors contribute to slow play, and they're all manageable.

OVER THE LAST COUPLE OF YEARS the economy has sadly driven some respectable golf courses out of business. Others are struggling not to lose golfers who are fed up with what just about everyone calls the number one problem in golf today—slow play. However, a few courses—those whose owners and managers have accepted the challenge of thinking and acting differently—are filling their tee sheets and gaining market share. Take a good look at these, because they’re going to be the long-term winners. These courses are emerging from the pack with heightened reputation, increased demand, higher customer satisfaction, improved staff morale, and…guess what...a much better bottom line, simply by focusing on the simplest of truths: it’s all about enjoying the day.

What have these courses done to keep their players enjoying the day? What they haven’t done is buy into two insidious myths that nearly everyone believes.

Myth #1: A round of golf should take four hours.
This is just ridiculous. Just as courses have different difficulty ratings, so do they have different Pace Ratings. The notion of pace rating courses—establishing a reasonable time in hours and minutes for a foursome to complete 18 holes—was first suggested by LINKS’s Editor George Peper back in 1994 when he was Editor of GOLF Magazine. The USGA developed the system, and the moment I saw it, I jumped on the bandwagon. Today I use this great tool along with other techniques to diagnose the real causes of slow play, eliminate them, and quantify the improvements.

One of the first courses I rated was the Old Course at St Andrews which has a pace rating of under four hours—3:57 to be exact—and makes that known to all who step to the first tee. Indeed many if not most golf courses, when managed properly, should be navigated in less than four hours.

Myth #2: It’s all the players’ fault.
Most often it’s not their fault at all, any more than gridlocked freeways are the fault of commuters. That is not to say golfers are blameless, simply that they share the responsibility. In truth there are five major causes of slow play: 1) Management Policies and Practices, 2) Player Behavior, 3) Player Ability, 4) Course Maintenance and Setup, and 5) Course Design. We’ll look at these shortly. Meanwhile, think about every slow play “solution” you’ve ever heard. Does any of them address all five of these factors, or do they focus only on the players? No wonder they don’t work.

Now let’s get back to what these successful courses have done. In a nutshell, they have involved all the stakeholders in the course’s commitment to success: the course managers, the players, the superintendents, and even the architects. Each of these stakeholders holds one of the keys to whether or not a player will enjoy the day. Think about the five factors and who controls each factor.

Course Managers: How the course is managed has the biggest single impact on pace of play. Choosing the right starting interval is one example. The good news is that unlike a crowded freeway, overcrowding on a golf course (a big reason for slow play) can be completely controlled by managers, as there’s only one on-ramp. Just as courses have different pace ratings, they have different optimal starting intervals. Some can start groups every seven minutes, some need ten-minute intervals. When I work with a course, I run computer simulations that show what the starting interval will do to the pace of play. The proper interval can reduce round times by 30 minutes or more, while maintaining or even increasing revenue. We improved the average round time at a world-famous Canadian resort by 55 minutes, and the general manager commented, “It’s like you’ve given me an additional course to use!” Later this year I’ll launch the second generation GPS technology, which will give managers the ultimate tools to identify and fix trouble areas before they begin to impact quality.

Managers also control everyday management practices, communications, physical locations, check-in procedures, staff behaviors, and customer service, all of which impact slow play and the overall playing experience. Some courses have a list of policies that actually encourage play to be slow (see sidebar) and players can learn to spot these danger signs when choosing where to play.

Players: Players do have some responsibility, but the orders such as “play ready golf, line up your putt and be ready, and take two clubs to your next shot” are isolated weapons in a big war. However, when combined with a properly loaded course and a well-trained marshal team, faster play techniques will make a big difference. Players can also set the stage for their own enjoyment with a few of my favorite tips:

  • Arrive at the course in plenty of time to check in, warm up and make your way to the first tee. Arriving late upsets the flow of play off the first tee. 
  • Consider your starting time as a contract with the course. The first ball of your foursome should be in the air on your starting time, not before and not after. 
  • Be courteous. Lose the “I paid my money, so I’ll play as slow as I want” attitude. 
  • Talk with your group as you play and work together to manage the gap in front of you. For example, if you started the round on a par 4, the group ahead of you should have been just approaching the first green as you teed off. Manage the space so when you arrive at the next tee you’ll see the same gap and won’t have to wait to tee off or run to catch up.

A word about player ability: Today’s courses have from three to six tee boxes on each hole ready to welcome players of all levels. Choose the right tees so you can reach the green on your second shot and enjoy the occasional par or birdie--take some responsibility for enjoying the day. Quoting golf course architect Alice Dye, “Who wants to play two woods and a wedge to every hole?”

Course Superintendents: The greenkeeper holds the success of your day in the palm of his hand. Growing the rough, putting hole locations behind bunkers and moving tee markers back can all make the course play faster. Surprised? When properly executed and when coupled with other elements of a pace-improvement program, course maintenance can actually reduce round times. Superintendents can easily avoid the biggest pace-slowing issues:

  • Don’t copy tournament courses with narrow fairways mowed like greens, lush deep rough, or extreme rough located just off the fairway, on the inside of doglegs, or in areas blind from the tee. Do consider adding rough to keep balls from rolling into even more trouble. 
  • Do experiment with the use of heavy rough or shaved chipping areas around greens, but don’t make them too severe or scores and the pace of play will climb. 
  • Don’t create ultra-fast greens that are most players’ nightmare. 
  • Don’t move tees too far forward to speed up play. This could either bring into play additional hazards for the average golfer or cause a wait on the next tee because the hole is played too quickly. The most successful courses don’t make their players play faster, they help them play a smooth round which takes less time to play

Course Architects: When I began studying the dynamics of pace of play, I asked an industry big-wig to put me in touch with Pete Dye. His response: “What’s an architect got to do with pace of play?”

“Just about everything,” I said.

Consider the elements of a course’s Pace Rating—playing length, severity and location of obstacles, and green-to-tee distances—and think about who is responsible for these? The course design determines how long it should take to play. Through the design, the architect also controls the hole sequencing (pattern of par 3, 4 and 5 holes), which determines the flow and rhythm of play. Here’s an all-too-familiar example. The first hole is a long uphill par 5 and is followed by a par 3 of more than 200 yards. Cresting the hill to the first green, you are horrified to see the two groups ahead of you waiting to tee off on number 2. Fifteen minutes into your round and you’re already chewing nails. The pace of play begins on the architect’s drawing board so a little planning ahead can make all the difference.

The bottom line? The architect determines how long it should take to play a course, and the course manager, superintendent, and players all determine how long it does take to play the course. Successful courses bring all these stakeholders onto their pace improvement team.

Bill Yates is founder of Pace Manager Systems®, Pebble Beach, California. Visit www.pacemanager.com for more information.

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