While the governing bodies of golf were busy concerning themselves with whether or not a handful of players should be able to use long putters, another issue has come to the forefront, and that’s the matter of slow play.
At this year’s Masters in April, 14-year-old Tianlang Guan was assessed a one-stroke penalty on the 17th hole of the second round for taking too long to get around. He had been warned on the 16th, but said afterwards that the difficult wind conditions led him to change his club selection and his already deliberate routine got even slower.
Guan, who was hovering right around the cut line, almost didn’t make it to the weekend thanks to the penalty, but the tournament’s 10-shot rule saved him.
Slow play reared its ugly head again at last week’s Open Championship, where Hideki Matsuyama was assessed a penalty on the 17th hole of the third round for making bad time. Matsuyama, 21, was given a warning on the 15th hole after taking over a minute to putt, and had the stroke penalty added when he took over two minutes setting up an approach shot on the 17th.
Each time, the penalized player’s partner — Guan with veteran Ben Crenshaw and Matsuyama with Johnson Wagner — took up the case that the penalty may have been a bit harsh. Both times, however, the rules officials who issued the penalties were able to give multiple instances of the players having been given chances to speed up.
Whether it comes to the professional tours or a weekend round with friends, there’s no doubt that slow play is certainly an issue, and the Tour players are the ones who set the example for even the most casual duffer. Last year, Matt Kuchar suggested a 40-second shot clock, and the United States Golf Association has launched a major marketing campaign to encourage faster play.
Recently, Colin Montgomerie weighed in as well:
“There are 52 referees out there at major championships and they should all have a clock to be able to put them on the clock on the first tee to ensure they all get around in time … It has been mentioned about a shot clock, and that is interesting. There should be an allotted time to play the game, like chess, where you have a certain time to play.”
While slow play is obviously an issue on the Tour, I don’t think an immediate clock is the best way to handle it. There are already certain time markers that players are expected to hit when they play, but actual penalties are so rare that the idea of “slow play” has become dangerously ambiguous.
With the exceptions of Guan and Matsuyama, there hadn’t been a true penalty assessed in nearly 20 years on the Tour, even when Kevin Na dealt with mental blocks so badly that he would intentionally miss swings to start over.
Golf is complicated enough for players without having to worry about a clock on every single shot. A player who is playing quite well, for instance, will naturally take less time than someone who is playing badly.
But perhaps adding to the penalty would work. A stroke the first time is already difficult, but if a player were to face a fine or even a disqualification in repeated or extreme cases, you’d likely see the game go much faster right away. Either way, the existing rules need to be applied more consistently before the tour worries too much about changing them.