Slow-Play Fixes: How to Poke the PGA Tour’s Slowpokes

January 27, 2016

Slow play, slow what? Everybody complains about it in pro golf but nobody does anything about it.

The European Tour has a new “hardball” penalty but it’s not so tough. Jordan Spieth drew a slow-play warning in the opening round of last week’s Abu Dhabi Championship. The penalty? Nothing, but if he gets a second warning when he’s being monitored (because his group is out of position), it’ll cost him around $2,800.

Gee, I hope a guy who won $22 million last year and probably earns more than that annually in endorsements can cough up $2,800. That’s the equivalent of fining me 50 cents. Get serious.

Money is not an effective deterrent for pro golfers in an era when purses are $6 million to $8 million and when the 126th guy on the money list doesn’t keep his exempt status but still goes home with $640,000, plus another $32,000 in FedEx Cup bonus money. 

So what do we do about slow play in pro golf? We go to the court of public opinion. We shame the repeat offenders.

Step One: Make it public. The PGA Tour currently keeps all slow-play information confidential … who got fined how much, whose groups were on the clock most often, who drew the top prize: a slow-play fine of $20,000. How’s that working? It’s not.

So let’s make every shred of slow play public. Under my plan, the PGA Tour would issue a weekly money list of players who have been fined for slow play and also issue related stats—who’s been on the clock the most times, who’s had the most bad timings. 

Golf Channel could show an updated graphic every week on the top 10 in FedEx Cup points … and the top 10 in slow-play fines. 

Certain players quickly will be revealed to be the slowest of the slow-play culprits. The paying public will let them hear about it. As the ostracizing gets louder, the companies that sponsor the turtles may “encourage” their endorsees to speed up since their slow play reflects poorly on their corporate images. One or two players might even lose endorsements because of slow play — what better wakeup call?

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Step Two: Bring in the shot clock. Football and basketball have it. Why not golf? It eliminates the gray area of players saying, “I wasn’t really that slow.” With a clock, it’s a yes-or-no issue. You either got the shot off in 45 seconds or you didn’t — in which case it’s right there in black and white at the end of the round. Instead of excuses and alibis, we’d have statistics. All it would take is replacing the signboards carried by volunteers (with so many digital scoreboards around the course, those signs are already obsolete) with a shot clock and someone to operate it (like the walking scorer who’s already there). 

The PGA Tour currently has similar data. ShotLink measures the distance of each stroke on the course. The elapsed time between the measurements in each shot in the group provides the approximate time each player took to play that shot. I suggest going public with this calculation to produce a Pace of Play World Rankings list every week. You could invert the order, I suppose, so the No. 1 spot would belong to the player who plays the fastest. That would be a positive public-relations concept. A lot of guys would like to be atop that ranking. And, of course, we negative media types could look at the bottom of the list to see who’s officially the slowest of the slow. 

Step Three: Hit them in the perks! The hard part will be figuring out relevant penalties. Money, as noted earlier, isn’t a great deterrent for many wealthy players. Even if fines doubled each time after, say, five fouls, and they bounced up from $5,000 to $10,000 to $20,000 to $40,000 … for millionaires, at best, they’re inconvenient. (All fines collected, by the way, would be donated to charities.)

The penalties have to be more tangible and meaningful for Tour players. After a handful of fines, you are relegated to the the latest tee times of the morning and afternoon waves on Thursday and Friday (when the greens are the most trampled) until you play your way out of the penalty box.

Other potential penalties:

You’re top five on the slow–play fines list? You don’t get a courtesy car that week. Rent your own, pal. Player parking? Nope, you’re relegated to the caddies’ lot. Or even worse, you’re stuck next to the working media. 

If you’re No. 1 on the slow play list, you have to wear a red bib or a red ribbon — the Tour’s version of The Scarlet Letter — during the tournament. You don’t like it? Then play faster and make some other guy wear The Red Bib the next week. It’s like a hot potato. Pass it on, man.

You lose 10% of FedEx Cup points earned while on the Slow Play List.

The slowest turtles could also be forced to pay for food in the players’ dining area, and to pony up for range balls, as pros did in olden times. It’s not about the money, but the ignominy. 

When it comes to slow-play enforcement, gents, it’s time to pick up the pace.