Pace of play is a topic all golfers can agree on. It’s too slow and it’s always someone else’s fault.

COVID-19 provided a unique opportunity to look at the relative effectiveness of one possible pace-of-play solution. Many courses instituted some sort of single-rider cart policy this year. If you want to use a cart, you’re riding solo.

Do single-rider carts speed up pace of play?

Pace of Play: The Dilemma

We’ve written about the pace of play conundrum before. Everyone agrees it’s a problem but no one can agree on how to solve it. Every golfer knows the pain of those 5 1/2-hour weekend marathons as well as facing the  “where the hell have you been?” music when you get home. And who’s to blame for slow play? Every golfer knows the answer: it’s that other sonuvabitch.

Over the past several PGA Merchandise Shows we’ve seen an influx of companies selling single-rider carts, golf surfboards and even golf-specific scooters. Those companies promise an improved pace of play with a dash of fun on the side.

Pace of play

Because of COVID, we finally have some data. Some is anecdotal while some is hard and undeniable. The data says that, when done properly, single-rider carts do improve pace of play. Dramatically so in some cases.

Case Study No. 1: California Dreamin’

Tagmarshal is one golf technology company that provides golf courses with what amounts to a traffic management system. The company makes it easy for courses to monitor pace of play throughout the day. It also provides analytics showing when, where and why bottlenecks or slowdowns are happening.

Dove Canyon is a private Jack Nicklaus-designed course in Orange County, Calif., and is a cart-only facility (no walkers). Last January through March, before the first round of COVID-19 lockdowns, the average round time was an acceptable four hours. Post-lockdown, single-rider carts were mandated Two things happened.

First, the number of rounds doubled. Second, despite the increasing traffic, the pace of play improved by 15 to 20 minutes.

“These are threesomes and foursomes only,” says Tagmarshal CEO Bodo Seiber. “The pre-COVID results weren’t bad – four hours. But switch to single riding and we have a gain, even though there’s more traffic.”

How much of this improvement is due to single-rider carts and how much is due to Tagmarshal’s monitoring system is an open question. We can put some context to it, however. Tagmarshal has shared data with us in the past showing pace-of-play improvements while the volume of play has remained relatively constant. However, Dove Canyon’s two-fold increase in volume would seem to indicate a significant benefit from single-rider carts.

To get more evidence, we need to travel about 900 miles north to Bend, Ore.

Case Study No. 2: Tetherow Golf Club

Tetherow is a semi-private resort course in Bend, Ore., designed by David McLay Kidd, the creator of Bandon Dunes and the Castle Course at St Andrews. The course has 54 standard two-person carts as well as 20 GolfBoards and 13 Finn scooters.

“Most people see the board or scooter and instantly want to take that over a cart,” says Katie Burnett, Tetherow’s head golf professional. “It obviously helps pace of play in that everyone can drive straight to their own ball.”

Like most other courses, Tetherow went single rider for the season. Their results are even more significant than Dove Canyon’s.

“Last year, our average pace of play was four hours and 30 minutes,” says Burnett. “This year, our average round time has been four hours so we cut at least 30 minutes off our round time.”

That improvement coincided with a dramatic increase in rounds played. In 2019, 13,740 rounds were played at Tetherow. In 2020, that number grew by more than 60 percent to nearly 23,000. Nearly two-thirds of that increase came from members.

“People weren’t going to work or traveling as much so we saw a gigantic increase in member rounds,” says Burnett. “But in Oregon, hiking trails closed, state parks closed. Golf just become the go-to thing to do.”

However…

Tagmarshal offers other examples showing the impact of single-rider carts. Most echo the previous two examples to varying degrees. The worst-case scenarios showed the same or slightly slower round times (no more than seven to eight minutes) despite dramatically higher volumes.

We spoke with other courses that offered more anecdotal feedback. A starter at Red Tail Golf Course in Massachusetts – a top-ranked, $100-per-round facility – told us they saw a noticeable pace-of-play improvement with single-rider carts.

Breakfast Hill in Greenland, N.H., however, saw no improvement. Rounds played were way up but the influx of new golfers combined with a relatively narrow and challenging course stymied any pace-of play-improvements. Our own experience there showed a five-hour weekend round was not uncommon.

Even though that feedback is anecdotal, it comes from staffers who are at those courses all day, every day. It does raise a couple of questions, however. First, what would pace of play have been like at a course such as Breakfast Hill this past year without single-rider carts? Second, how much of a role did Tagmarshal’s course management system play in those courses that saw improvements?

For the first question, it’s reasonable to presume inexperienced golfers in two-rider carts would have made pace of play even worse. The second question, however, is of the chicken-or-the-egg variety.

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The Pace of Play Data Game

The data from Tetherow is pretty straightforward and seemingly hard to dispute. A 61-percent increase in rounds played combined with a 30-minute improvement in pace of play is happy news all around.  Single-rider carts obviously played a role but Tetherow also removed all the bunker rakes and mandated leaving the flagstick in. Another curveball is that, in 2019, members played 49 percent of the rounds. In 2020, due to COVID, members played 60 percent of the rounds.

Also, according to Tagmarshall, when you play and how quickly you play are closely related.

“People play faster in the morning and pace of play tends to deteriorate during the day,” says Tagmarshal COO Graig Kleu. “You can’t play faster than the group in front of you. So, when you have bottlenecks, that slows the field down.”

That little nugget also led Tagmarshal to another conclusion. When pace of play is fast, there’s no need to widen tee-time intervals for social distancing purposes or, for that matter, pace of play purposes.

“If I’m playing faster and the tee-time interval is nine minutes, I’m going to be farther away from the group behind me, purely because I’m playing faster,” says Kleu. “If you add another three minutes to the tee time interval, you’re creating an unnecessary buffer.”

Pace of play

You may not think an additional three minutes between tee times is that big a deal but doing that for the entire day reduces golf course capacity by 25 percent. Unless greens fees are increased, that cuts revenue by 25 percent.

What’s The Verdict?

Tagmarshal’s data for 2020 is remarkably consistent.

“If we do a year-over-year comparison with our courses that are cart-only, there is a noticeable improvement,” says Kleu.

It’s important to note the Tagmarshal technology itself is designed to improve pace of play. It does that by giving courses hard data on where and when the slowdowns occur. It also helps them make decisions on course setup and on-course player assistance. That brings us back to that chicken-or-the-egg question: how much of the improvement was due to Tagmarshal and how much was due to single-rider carts?

pace of play

The Tetherow example may give us the best answer as it has been using Tagmarshal for several years. Nine thousand more rounds played is a remarkable yearly increase for any golf course. Yes, most of those rounds were played by members but to still see your pace of play improve by 30 minutes tells us something more.

Single-rider carts most certainly have an impact.

Now it’s your turn. We’d love to hear about your experiences with single-rider carts this past season. Have you noticed any changes in pace of play? Has an influx of new golfers slowed play at your course or has the single-rider mandate kept pace of play about the same?