The PGA Tour Could Fix Its Slow Play Problem—But It Won’t

The PGA Tour has called two slow-play penalties in the last 24 years. If it's against the rules, why don't they enforce it? We run down the causes and potential remedies for golf's pace of play problem.
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Calling J.B. Holmes’ pace of play “deliberate” is like calling Cameron Champ “long.” Holmes is painfully slow. But since he’s not one of the biggest names on Tour, he stays under the radar most weeks. When he does contend, fans are forced to endure his flagrant disregard for his playing partners, his insistence on plumbing every putt not once but twice and his unwillingness to prepare for his own shot while others are hitting.

It happened last year at the Farmers Insurance Open, when Holmes took more than four minutes (!) to hit his approach into the final hole. (It’s very possible he cost Alex Noren that tournament). And it happened again Sunday at Riviera, when Holmes was the main reason the final group needed 5 hours and 30 minutes to finish 18 holes. The glacial speed sent Golf Twitter into a frenzy. It was so cringeworthy that even Jim Nantz couldn’t help but take a few jabs. In other words: Holmes’ fifth PGA Tour victory was completely overshadowed by how long it took him to seal his fifth PGA Tour victory.

For the second straight Sunday, pace of play was the No. 1 story of the day. Last week, Phil Mickelson had to come back Monday morning to polish off his victory at the AT&T Pebble Beach because his final group couldn’t finish in five hours. This week, Holmes & Co. limped their way through Riviera’s back nine as sunlight waned. It was, in some ways, an apropos finish to a marathon week: the weather-disrupted tournament felt like it took forever to finish, so why should the final 18 be any different?

Holmes was asked about the tempo of the day.

“Well, you play in 25 mile per hour gusty winds and see how fast you play when you’re playing for the kind of money and the points and everything that we’re playing for,” he said.

Here’s the thing: Holmes isn’t wrong. Being able to take basically unlimited time over a shot or having the luxury to wait until a particularly gusty breeze settles, is a competitive advantage. Given the current status quo, he has every right to do so. Holmes didn’t break any rules Sunday. His group wasn’t even put on the clock. He’s slow, but we can’t say for certain that he’s the slowest player on Tour. He deserves to be called out, sure, but he’s a symptom, not the problem.

The problem is the PGA Tour’s woefully vague policy on pace of play. You’ll often hear that pros are allowed 40 seconds to play a shot, but that time limit only applies once a group is “out of position,” meaning they’ve fallen significantly behind the group in front. As long as a player is keeping up with the group in front of him, he can take as long as he likes. Holmes’ group (Justin Thomas and Adam Scott) actually had to wait to play a number of shots on the front nine. They were never out of position and, thus, never time-constricted.

Players can only be penalized if they have first been put on the clock and then exceed 40 seconds. This exact scenario has played out precisely twice in the last 24 years. It’s a point worth repeating: the PGA Tour has handed out exactly two slow-play penalties over the past 24 years.

Why’s that the case? There’s always a justification: last week, the blame was put on the amateurs. On Sunday at Riviera, it was the wind. Having spent many an afternoon watching glacially slow tournament rounds, I’m here to tell you that it’s neither the amateurs nor the wind's fault.

Let’s take a look at the causes of slow play, why it’s a problem and some potential fixes.

Causes of slow play

Not preparing for the shot while others are playing. Too often, players don’t prepare while their playing partners are hitting their next shot. There are a couple explanations for this. Perhaps players are truly apathetic to pace of play issues and simply can’t be bothered. I’d suspect that, more often, they’ve been instructed to essentially tune out in between shots. Mental coaches will tell you that it’s impossible to stay laser-focused for the entirety of a round, so it’s best to let your mind wander in between shots and then re-focus when it’s go time. Sounds legit. But it’s still a cause for slow play.

Topographical maps (and math). Players have more information at their disposal than ever before, so players are processing more information than ever before when preparing for a shot. On the greens, that means studying topographical maps of the putting surface. Many players use a version of the Aimpoint putting system—when you see players holding up fingers in front of their face, that’s Aimpoint—which requires another calculation. Other guys use the old fashion “plumb,” a method that requires you to hold up your putter behind the ball on every putt. (Holmes does this even on tap-ins, and often times twice on more than tap-ins). But the math isn’t limited to putting—just listen to everything Bryson DeChambeau talked with his caddie about before hitting a stock gap wedge a couple weeks ago in Saudi Arabia.

Granted, not everyone is DeChambeau, but that gives you a little insight into everything that can be, and often is, considered.

Here’s J.B. Holmes taking over a minutue to hit a putt.

If you can watch that without saying hit the damn ball, you have more patience than me.

Brutally deliberate pre-shot routines. When players finally do decide they’re ready to, you know, hit the golf ball, that also tends to take way too long. Patrick Cantlay’s pre-shot waddles are probably the best illustration of this.

Taking a bit more time over the ball may seem negligible, but if a player takes an extra 20 seconds on 70 shots throughout a round, that’s an extra 23 minutes. If all three players in a group do that, it’s over an hour difference. Those seconds add up.

Why it’s an issue

Unwatchable telecasts. First and foremost, it makes the telecasts borderline unpalatable. No one has the time or patience to sit on their couch and watch 330 minutes straight of golf. Perhaps ratings aren’t dropping now—commissioner Jay Monahan has a certain Tiger to thank for that—but golf will see its popularity decline as its aging fanbase grows old and the Instagram generation, which clamors for bite-sized content, becomes advertisers’ target audience.

Competitive advantages. Having to do something quickly makes the task exponentially more difficult. It’s why standardized tests like the SAT and LSAT and GMAT are timed. Shouldn’t golf be the same? Should a player have the luxury of waiting out a gust of wind for virtually as long as he likes? Should he be able to analyze every possible factor in a three-foot putt? Or should he have to pull the darn trigger, even if he doesn’t feel absolutely ready to do so?

Poor example. Weekend warriors and junior golfers look to the pros to set examples, and I don’t mean that in theh sappy role model sense. Amateurs watch PGA Tour pros in hope of picking up something they can use to help their games. So when they see the best players in the world taking 13 looks at the hole before a shot, they might do the same. Or when they see a guy grind over an 18-inch putt, they might do the same.

"The problem is leaking down to the amateur and college game," Billy Horschel told USA Today. "When I play in pro-ams, it's amazing to see how long some of these players take. We are such big influencers in the game that whatever we do people are going to copy us."

If—and we’ll get to this in just second—the Tour is serious about speeding things up, here’s what they can do.

Potential remedies

Enforcing the 40-second rule on every shot. It should apply to every shot, not just when a group is put on the clock. This seems pretty simple, and it would force players to permanently alter their pre-shot routines.

Banning green-reading books. This would certainly speed things up, but the Tour would receive massive backlash from players if they took away a key part of their arsenal. Whether the green-reading books should have been allowed in the first place is another conversation—isn’t reading the green one of golf’s challenges?—and if they are indeed banned at some point, it will be for theoretical reasons, not pace-of-play ones.

Lower the standards for putting a group on the clock. As of now, the Tour will only place a group on the clock if they are blatantly, wildly, tremendously behind—like, two holes behind. Putting groups on the clock earlier and more often would give groups no choice but to pick it up.

Penalize players. It really all comes down to this. Until the Tour starts actually penalizing players for slow play, nothing is going to change. Brooks Koepka said as much a couple weeks back:

"I think it's weird how we have rules where we have to make sure it's dropping from knee height or the caddie can't be behind you and then they also have a rule where you have to hit it in 40 seconds, but that one's not enforced. You enforce some but you don't enforce the others.

"[Slow players are] breaking the rules but no one ever has the balls to actually penalize them.”

Put yourself in the shoes of a slow PGA Tour pro. You’re coming down the stretch with a real chance of winning for the first time in years. You’re most comfortable when you’re playing at a crawling pace, plus you have a feeling your playing partner, who you’re battling it out with, is uncomfortable with all that waiting. You know you’re not going to get penalized.

Why on earth would you speed it up?

So, will anything happen?

Probably not. The PGA Tour, perhaps more so than any of the major sports leagues, is run by the players. In order to do something that’s going to piss off a large swath of players—and any pace of play change would cause full-on outrage from many, though guys like Koepka would welcome it with open arms—there would have to be a clear and pressing reason to do so. Social media outrage does not qualify. As long as the ratings remain high, as long as the advertising dollars keep flowing in, the Tour doesn’t need to do anything.