The rhetoric is entirely tired, but it doesn't change the reality that slow play is still the single largest problem in golf, and no one has a good answer...yet. There are ideas, studies, and plenty of pontification – but is it possible our focus is misguided?
Can we speed up the game, by literally speeding up the game?
A few weeks ago, we shared a video (above) of a Lacern Golf Cart capable of traveling at 50 MPH. Much to our surprise, it became our most viewed Facebook post ever. While some of you loathed the idea, and no doubt, amateur NASCAR, and golf likely don’t mix well, golfers are hungry for this conversation to go somewhere other than where it's been, which is nowhere.
What's at risk is nothing less than the next generation of golfers, and perhaps we've already lost our chance to capture the oft-discussed generation of millennials, but the point remains; there is nothing is in place that guarantees golf’s long-term survival. Look at professional football. Conversations around CTE and the real, quantifiable health risks associated with the sport are having an impact on participation. See John Urschel
What do you think Pop Warner and JAA fields will look like in twenty years if the game doesn't adapt? Is there any reason why golf should be more immune to change?
We often cite generational differences and over-scheduled calendars, but today’s kids don't do much other than sleep, socialize (in virtual environments) and attend school for 5 hours at a time. The nature of golf dictates it will always be more marathon than a sprint, and I’m not suggesting it needs to morph into a 30-minute activity, but in its current form, the list of reasons to choose golf is over-shadowed by myriad barriers.
The bottom line: Golf must become more inviting to younger players, and there's nothing about a 5-hour round that’s attractive to anyone.
What we must avoid is giving attention to factors which are either unlikely to change (tee time intervals, course design) or not root causes of slow play (ineffective marshals or the failure to practice ready golf). Cash strapped courses are always going to pack tee sheets, and ready golf is helpful, in as much as a teaspoon is helpful for shoveling your way out of a blizzard.
Critics love to finger point at the Kevin Na's and Jason "All" Day's of the PGA Tour, and while the it’s what the pros do mindset sometimes translates to the amateur level, isn’t it possible the blame is misplaced?
We’re talking about professional golfers, playing the most difficult courses under extremely challenging conditions as a means to earn a paycheck. What they do is nothing like the calamity of Joe Public and the 5+ hour Saturday round at the course down the street. The latter is our problem to solve, while the former continues to be largely ignored by the ruling bodies, which, ironically take years to study topics before rendering a decision that seldom accomplishes anything while often running contrary to the best interests of its majority constituent – the amateur golfer.
Is it possible solutions lie in paper clips and staples, not combustion engines and fancy algorithms? Simple, functional and easy to implement, not complex and cost aversive; these are the criteria which can lead to viable and actionable solutions. That's the good news.
Bad news? I have no answers, but I do have some ideas. My hope is to alter the direction of this conversation, and in that process maybe we strike gold. After all, unintended consequences gave us champagne, Coca-Cola, and the potato chip.
If the game is going to take less time, shouldn’t each cog in the wheel seek to become more efficient? The physical speed at which players move around a course is as good a starting point as any.
Let’s go back to that golf cart.
What if golf carts were made for a single rider instead of two and weren't so damn slow? 50 MPH is probably excessive, but what about 20 MPH? It might be slightly less social, but there's nothing efficient about strapping two people into the same cart and watching them zig-zag around the course like drunken lightning bolts. There’s still plenty of time to razz your buddies as they line up that 4-footer for double. Four players, four carts and 9-holes in 60-90 minutes. Why can't that become the norm – or at least an option?
Footgolf introduced the concept of different (yet loosely related) activities sharing the course. Let's keep the basic structure, but instead inlay a series of shorter 9-hole courses with larger cups into the existing course. We’re not exactly pro-HackGolf here, but is there anything wrong with giving players of varying skill and experience choices which are more congruent with their actual playing ability?
This is why ski hills offer everything from the magic carpet to double-diamond black chutes – all at the same location. Golf courses have 4-5 sets of tees which only change a single factor – distance. Does this go far enough to authentically serve beginning (or lesser skilled) golfers? Without better options, novice players are going to struggle mightily, and that often means the groups behind them struggle mightily too. 2.5-3 hours to maybe break 80 over 9-holes, does that math work for anyone?
This may not directly impact how quickly players move around a course, but what if courses sold tee times rather than memberships? Like season tickets, individuals would own a time and cost would be a function of the specific time you want to purchase. The concept of fractional ownership already exists overseas where courses operate based on this premise and pace of play isn't nearly the issue it is here. At a minimum, it's a step in a different direction, and the openness to different structures is exactly the thinking we sorely need to embrace.
If the past is prologue, private courses are going play faster than public ones. The average length of a round increases throughout the day and pretty much everyone is reticent to admit or label themselves a slow player - even when confronted with overwhelming evidence to the contrary. None of that is going to change anytime soon.
Some feel a laissez-faire approach is best. Golf, as an industry and game, will grow and shrink over time and this cyclical reality should be expected and even embraced.
I disagree. This isn't cyclical. It's a fundamental point of transition where we engender the very real possibility that we've already lost a generation of golfers and without some creative thinking, the very fabric of the game could start to unravel.
This won't happen overnight or even in the next several decades. But as with the example of football, people will alter behavior when provided different information. Generations of golfers are going to reap the decisions we sew now, and if easier, uncomplicated solutions are to be found and put into place, my hunch is it's going to take something better than the collective wisdom of another USGA study or rehashing of how to play ready golf. It's going to come from an organic conversation where the only rule regarding the pace of play is there are no rules.
Golf has a history, which should be honored and upheld. But part of that history is change and adaptation, and while golf drags its heels more than pretty much every other sport, change is inevitable.
The physical act of a four-ball playing 18 holes and shooting around 100 takes about an hour. The way in which we create structures to manage the other 2-3 hours will have everything to do with who is playing this game when those currently making the rules are no longer around.