There isn’t a single moment in my life where I put more trust into my fellow humans than when I’m tossing my golf clubs on my shoulder and heading out the door to the golf course. I calculate how long the round will take and announce my ETA to my wife.
If this bet was available on Draft Kings or Fan Duel, you’d take the over every time. By the sixth hole I’m texting my wife with a new estimated time because, well, golf seems to be taking longer and longer these days.
This past weekend I played a five hour round. We’re talking about Boston in April with a high of 50 degrees. Not some banner 75 degree day on a long weekend in the summer when the mayor has closed all the beaches.
In my experience over the last few years, the five hour round has slowly become the rule rather than the exception. Walking off the 18th green 4.5 hours after a round feels like a victory. I think golfers heading out for a round at the local course plan for rounds that are closer to five hours than four. Sadly, I still stand in the threshold of my apartment and foolishly count out four hours on my fingers, adds in the commute, and declare a time to my wife that isn’t close to accurate.
Standing on the seventh hole this weekend, I watched a group pull up to the the adjacent sixth tee box. We were approaching the green and the approaching foursome was straight out of Instagram: riding carts, playing rap music, drinking beers, smoking Philly blunts. They looked like they could make a living protecting a quarterback and weren’t very good at golf.
Whether that visual gives you hives or makes you say, “Hell yeah!” I believe music, beers, blunts, and bad golf can exist in a four hour round. I’ve seen it. This particular foursome wasn’t the reason the pace of play was slow. However, one of the guys in the group took a big old swing with his driver and topped it. His ball scampered 50-60 yards down the cart path, through a patch of trees, and onto the seventh hole’s fairway. It was a moment where you would imagine he might take another ball from his pocket and give that one a lash. Nope. Instead, I watched the guy walk the 60 yards to his ball, pick it up, return to the tee box, and hit it again. His second attempt was a little better, at least it stayed on his hole.
As I watched this scene, I realized that slow play begets slow play, but more importantly, slow play creates bad habits. On the same hole, I looked back at the group behind us; they were all clomping through the long grass about 25 yards from the tee box looking for a golf ball for well over five minutes. Why? Probably because they saw we were still on the green, so what’s the rush? It’s the same mentality that the guy who picked his tee shot up has - there’s nowhere to go, so who cares? We’re out here chilling out with our crew, what’s the difference between 4 hours and 5 hours (note: one whole hour…)?
I’m not trying to play the roll of grumpy old man here. If someone in my group wants to play music, I don’t mind it at all. I’ll have some beers while I play. I’m not some Victorian age teetotaler scoffing at these young heathens ruining my game. As long as I can play in four hours and hit the Vegas under on my ETA back home, I’m happy.
The influx of new people to the game is awesome, but I wonder how many of these new people have someone that can teach them a few pace of play tricks? I grew up playing golf. Even at my small nine hole, semi-public course, kids were made to feel like a scourge. In the mind of the adults, kids were the only reason the pace of play was slow. In the words of Kevin McCallister’s cousin in Home Alone, kids were a disease.
I have memories of running to my ball because I was trying to hurry up. I had to learn pretty quickly how to decide what club to hit and then hit the shot. I had to learn where to leave my bag on the green. I had to learn to pick up my ball after numerous swipes and try again on the next tee box. I had to learn how to track a ball in the air as it sliced into the woods so I could go hunt it down. And I had to learn when to say farewell to that misbehaving golf ball and press on with the round.
At this point, it seems like 4.5 hour rounds are a lock and five hour jaunts are acceptable at your run of the mill public course. That means no one is learning how to play quickly because they never have to play quickly.
This entire piece can’t be just a vent session. There has to be some solution or at least something courses can try in order to speed up play, right?
The knee-jerk reaction is to say courses need rangers to push groups along. How many rangers have you seen do anything on a golf course? I’ve seen zero rangers have any impact on pace of play. I can’t blame them, either. It’s an awful job to go around and tell paying customers that they need to hurry up, or worse - tell them they need to pick up their golf balls and skip a hole because they’re too slow (maybe those groups can mark down a skipped hole as a birdie on their scorecard?).
Punishing slow play or haranguing slow groups isn’t going to do anything except turn people off to returning to that specific golf course. Greens fees have become admission tickets to an all-day theme park in many people’s mind: drive carts around, hit a golf ball, drink some beers, and hang out with friends.
But what if courses rewarded fast play? You catch more bees with honey, right? So let’s sweeten the pot and get groups making the turn faster and wrapping up their rounds in four hours.
How would that work? Simple, instead of having a ranger aimlessly drive around the course and wave at players like they’re on a parade float, put a ranger on the ninth hole with a cooler, a watch, and a tee sheet with each group’s accurate start time. If the group finishes the front nine in under two hours they can grab one free item from the cooler (Gatorade, beer, snacks, water, etc…). If they don’t make it around fast enough, no soup for them.
I’d have another person waiting at the 18th hole. If a group comes in under four hours they are handed a voucher ($5? $10?) to use in the clubhouse that day or any time during that particular season for food, beverages, or towards their next round of golf.
As a business owner, it would make your course a spot people would want to play. You’re handing out a free snack or beverage at the turn, encouraging fast play, and enticing them to come back again. This wouldn’t even have to be an every day thing. It could be on weekends only, it could be when the tee sheet gets a certain number of people on it. If you were really fancy, you could probably manage some high-tech clock set-up on the first, ninth, and 18th greens where groups check in online. Even golf carts have trackers on them now.
Is this all wishful thinking? Of course it is.
Am I foolishly placing even more trust in my fellow humans? Probably.
But I do think it would work if clubs were willing to try it out. The game is exploding, but the game is also taking longer. When the rest of the country opens up and has other options for recreation, golf is going to have to do something to keep a percentage of the new golfers around. Food, snacks, a little bribery, and some time back in their pockets, might be just the ticket.
And selfishly, I’d like to hit the under just once this summer and arrive home early.