Let’s speed it up in 2016

By Duncan Simpson
NZ PGA Chief Executive

As we all know, the time it takes to play a round of golf is cited as one of the main reasons the game is suffering from declining membership and participation.  

The most common solution is to suggest a move to nine (or even six) hole golf.  That does have its place -– for example twilight tournaments –- but most golf club members would state a preference for the traditional 18 holes, whilst at the same time complaining about how long it takes to play at their own club.

Many surveys have been conducted on the reasons for this, the most recent being the Royal & Ancient report “Pace of Play: Global Survey” released in April 2015.  

This received some publicity while I was in the United Kingdom last year, and much shock/horror was expressed about the 3 hours 40 minutes it takes on average for four players to complete a round there.

We should be so lucky.  In Australia and New Zealand, the average is closer to 4 hours 20 minutes.  Why the difference?  

There is no single answer, but it appears to be a combination of course set up, whether a competition is being played or not, different player behaviour, the ability of golfers and so on.  

Since many attempts have been made to solve the problem, including golf clubs specifying a time in which nine holes should be completed -– even printing expected times per hole on the card —  and numerous other recommendations in club newsletters and so on. But is the problem actually insolvable, or can something be done to make a genuine difference?

I believe it can.  A recent paper by one of our PGA graduates highlighted the problem the average club golfer faces with course length.  

A PGA Tour player will typically be competing on a course around 6600m in length and since they can carry the ball around 260m, that means the normal second shot they play on a par four will be an eight or nine iron.  

By contrast, a New Zealand club golfer with a handicap of 30 might carry the ball around 120m, so to be playing the equivalent second shot as a PGA player, the 18 hole course he plays should be around the 2800m mark.  

Or put another way, for the Tour Player to face the same degree of difficulty as our club golfer, his course would have to stretch to over 10,000m. That is clearly impractical.

So course set up has a huge influence, and if your committee is full of testosterone-fuelled low handicappers, don’t be surprised if you lose members at the other end because you have made the game too tough.

Secondly, mimicking PGA Tour players is another major contributor.  Do we need to know the exact distance to the pin, given the variation in the distance we hit each club?  So put away the range finders and play the shot as you see it, using the 135metre fairway markers if you must.  

Thirdly -– unless in a match or official tournament –- play ready golf, whoever is ready plays.  Line up putts before it’s your turn – you’ll normally sink more if you go with your first instinct. Your livelihood is not on the line.

Fourthly, clubs should think about the competitions they play, especially in winter when abnormal ground conditions cause delays in searching for balls, even in the middle of the fairway. 

Why not play foursomes or an ambrose competition, instead of the incessant stablefords and, even, winter medal series?   

Better yet, restrict the number of clubs to, say, seven or eight. You won’t want carts or even motorised trundlers under these conditions.  Surprisingly, you might find people play better and be less subject to “handicap drift” in winter, thus avoiding a few resignations when renewal of club subscriptions rolls around.

There are so many upsides to faster play: better course utilisation (more tee times on busy days), more time in the 19th (more revenue to the club), happier members,  the agony of a bad round doesn’t take as long and more time for stuff before or after golf.

The benefits are clear, so why don’t we all make a genuine attempt in 2016 to speed up play?  Set realistic goals and get somebody to measure improvement. If the current Saturday afternoon roundis 4-1/2 hours, try for 4-1/4 hours.  A free drink (not necessarily alcoholic) in the 19th for those completing in four hours or less might produce a dramatic change in behaviour.  We all know what we have to do, so let’s get on and do it!