OPINION

Time to tackle golf’s slow play problem

Opinion Slow Play 150Th Open St Andrews

The 150th Open has been a magnificent celebration of all that is great about golf. But the game has a problem.

A large chunk of the afternoon wave took more than six hours to finish Thursday’s opening rounds. 

The final group, which teed off at 4.16pm, did not finish until 10.25pm in near total darkness. On the 14th tee alone, they waited for 35 minutes. The group containing Tiger Woods, Matt Fitzpatrick and Max Homa took six hours and five minutes.

On the Old Course, this week of all weeks, there are reasons for things to take slightly longer than they normally would. The course is firm and fast, so players are waiting longer to avoid hitting into the groups in front.

Shared greens and fairways also play their part, along with myriad bottlenecks. 

On Thursday, the course played tougher later in the day, players with morning tee times shooting an average of 71.97 while in the afternoon it was 73.41. More shots being hit inevitably leads to longer rounds.

But there is, frankly, no excuse for a three-ball taking six hours to play 18 holes of golf.

I spent an hour beside the 16th fairway on Thursday afternoon. In that time, just three groups came through.

Given it’s nearly impossible to discern what’s happening on the tee or green from halfway up the fairway, that means I saw nine golf shots up close. In 60 minutes. That's a shot every six minutes and forty seconds.

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The scene on the 16th was the problem in a microcosm. Players with 100 yards to the green walking to the front of the putting surface, then walking back. Those with short chips striding up onto the green, going back to the ball and then repeating the process. Others waiting until their playing partners played before beginning lengthy pre-shot routines.

That is not a good spectator experience.

It hasn’t gone unnoticed in the grandstands, either. Fans were already becoming irritated on Thursday afternoon. Even the players are irked.

“I figured it would be slow but not this slow,” said defending champion Collin Morikawa.

“We’re watching more golf than we ever have. You stay in the fairway and you’re watching two other groups play golf.”

US Open champion Matt Fitzpatrick described the situation as “a joke”. 

“This just shouldn’t be happening ever in golf,” he said.

“It was really slow,” added home favourite David Law. “You had to keep your concentration or you would end up missing by 20 or 30 yards.”

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It sometimes feels like little is being done to tackle the problem. There are precedents for changing the rules and, if we want to pay more to slow play than lip service, that is something which must be looked at.

The R&A issued a statement on Friday evening, in which the governing body claimed said is "doing all it can to improve pace of play" but highlighted challenges with the layout. There's only so much they can do, of course, but is a 23-word statement enough?

I often discuss the game with friends who are not golfers. They say they don't play because “it’s boring” or “it takes too long”. Increasingly, I can see their point.

Six-hour rounds do nothing to challenge deep-rooted perceptions of golf that many are working so hard to change.

What's more, unless there is a commitment to address the problem, we will continue to have this conversation for many years to come.

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