Improve the pace of play? Be careful what you wish for

Rules of Golf

Another week, another collection of rules mishaps. To try and get things right we need to get away from obsessing about slow play, argues Mark Townsend

Just under a year ago the new Rules of Golf for 2019 were unveiled on the R&A website. One paragraph in it read: “The process to modernise the Rules began in 2012 and was initiated to ensure that the Rules are easier to understand and apply for all golfers and to make the game more attractive and accessible for newcomers.”

If you are a golfer, professional or otherwise, then the last few weeks might well have rendered you a nervous wreck. If you were a possible newcomer to the game, and you’ve been paying attention recently, then you’ll have probably already switched to cycling or something else.

Another week has just passed in the professional game and, again, we’re all left scratching our heads.

Top of the hit parade this week as Amy Olson and Ariya Jutanugarn high-fiving one another on the LPGA Tour.

Backstopping might have been going on for decades but it really came to light in the middle of 2018 when there were a couple of incidents that left a bit of a sour taste. Both Jutanugarn and Olson had never heard of it before this week which maybe explains their mini celebration. Stacy Lewis is another who was new to the practice.

On first inspection it looked horrific, one player getting a massive leg up from another. Rule 15.3/1 – “If two or more players agree to leave a ball in place to help any player, and that player then makes a stroke with the helping ball left in place, each player who made the agreement gets the general penalty (two penalty strokes)” – had been clearly broken.

Then, thankfully, there was some context from Olson in a text to Golfweek: “We had waited on 18th tee, for 10 minutes in 18th fairway and Michelle (Wie) was waiting for a ruling. To help pace of play in golf, Ariya and I went before Michelle even though she was out. Ariya’s ball was not in my intended line and to help move things along, I told her it was fine.

“I had never even heard of the backstopping issue as I don’t really watch PGA Tour that much and it hasn’t been an issue on the LPGA. My intention was to help pace of play. Obviously with everything that has gone down I think we all (especially me) will be more conscious of it and I will have EVERYONE mark anything remotely close to the hole now.”

pace of play in golf

Fair enough for being so quick to front it out – take note Sergio Garcia and Matt Kuchar – but, for professionals, not knowing the rules is pretty much unforgivable. In future a caddie might also want to speak up to save any sort of similar embarrassment while Olson suggests that her biggest crime was to try and speed things up even though it was their last hole.

Occasionally, well quite often actually, pace of play in golf should be forgotten about. In time when we look back on this week in Mexico the first thing to flash into our heads is Tiger Woods’ recovery from a fairway bunker in the second round. Time to update the Tiger showreel.

Like Phil Mickelson out of the pine needles at 13 at Augusta the putt was missed but, no matter, let’s keep revisiting and enjoying it.

Without wanting to be a party pooper I timed how long it took for Woods to pull the trigger and it came in at two minutes and 25 seconds. Given the accepted recommended time for a shot is 40 seconds then Woods took an age to play his shot.

Likewise his chip shot at 16 in the 2005 Masters and another bad time/infringement in the making.

Thank god Woods did take his time as, aside from the thrill of watching his magic any newcomers who have stuck with golf recently might now give it a go having watched this escape. But what if, given all the howls of outrage over pace of play in golf, Woods was on a bad time and this resulted in a shot being added. It would have resulted in the most ridiculous bogey of all time.

Olson will care less about the speed of play going forward, hopefully the rest of us will follow suit.

If there was a simple answer to slow play and all that comes with it then somebody would have come up with it by now, until then hoping that Ready Golf and flags in and three-minute drops isn’t going to get the job done when nobody ever gets penalised while the layouts get longer and tougher with every passing year.

Worksop’s Mark Foster has played on the European Tour for more than 20 years, has lots of good stuff to say on the matter and he texted me this: “My old-school mentality is you should be allowed more time for a difficult shot. But then who determines what a difficult shot is? If a guy is a poor chipper he doesn’t get extra time for a ‘difficult shot’.

“Yet it’s apparently fine to take three minutes if you’ve blasted it out of position and have to get it back in play. For me, the new mentality needs to educate that all shots count for one.

“TV are happy to watch Tiger take two minutes regularly, even more time in majors, then they single people out who take the same amount of time. Time is time under the rules. JB Holmes takes 90 seconds for a putt, Tiger takes 150 seconds for a bunker shot. Who’s violating the rules the most? Taking the result and emotion out of the equation, almost everyone takes forever.”

Amen.

Going back to that R&A story a year ago the first ‘significant adjustment’ they talk about is dropping procedure which reads: “Golfers will now drop from knee height. This will ensure consistency and simplicity in the dropping process while also preserving the randomness of the drop.”

Another part of this was, here we go again, another nudge towards improving the… pace of play.

Rickie Fowler was the first player to forget this when he dropped form shoulder height, Rory McIlroy supposedly nearly followed suit before his caddie stepped in. Given the regularity with how naturally arms have been going up these past few weeks it was bound to happen at some point.

When we do get the next instalment of the Rules of Golf then hopefully there will be an additional paragraph that lets you drop from anywhere between knee and shoulder height if only to preserve the sanity of anyone who has played the game for any length of time.

The Rules of Golf, the gift that keeps on giving.

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