Monday, January 28, 2013

Penalize Them Already!

            I was hoping that Torrey Pines would bring about some obscure ruling that would allow an in-depth look into a hidden Decision, but instead we’re going to discuss how it could possibly take nearly four hours to complete 11 holes.  Tiger went on record questioning the Tour’s pace of play enforcement wondering whether the group of Eric Compton, Brad Fritsch and Steve Marino were ever warned or timed about their pace of play, so once again it becomes a topic of discussion.
            I’m on record in favor of stroke penalties being enforced on Tour.  I don’t have the official language of the PGA Tour’s pace of play policy, but I know stroke penalties are not enforced.  I also know it’s a rare occurrence that ANY penalty is actually enforced on Tour.  Despite the growing problem both on Tour and with the game in general, it simply isn’t a priority.  I’ll say it once so that it can be stated again:  If you start dealing out stroke penalties for pace of play, the pace will improve.  Period.
            As a player and a Rules Official I’ve both been through and enforced about as many different policies as you can imagine, so I’d like to highlight some of the different options that are available to associations and tournament directors throughout the country.

The Rule
            Rule 6-7 discusses Pace of Play and Undue Delay.  It states that the Committee may make guidelines in order to enforce Pace of Play.  It also states that the penalty for undue delay is the General Penalty (two stokes in stroke play and loss of hole in match play) but that the Committee can modify the penalty to one stroke for the first offense and two strokes for the second offense in stroke play, or loss of hole for the first two offenses in match play.  There is some debate in the Rules world about how this permits Committees to enforce a Pace of Play policy that includes a warning for the first offense (you will see examples below), but that debate is for another time. 

            The policy of timing groups that are out of position is what we see on Tour and for most professional events – both men and women.  With timing, the Committee sets a standard pace of play.  A group is then considered out of position based on being both behind that set pace and more than a set standard behind the group in front of them on the course.  For example, a group is out of position if they arrive at the teeing ground of a par 4 hole and the preceding group has cleared the putting green. 
            Once a group has been identified as out of position, then an official – typically a rover – is responsible for timing each individual player.  Player’s are given a set amount of time to complete a stroke.  The standard is around 40 seconds.  If a player receives a bad time they are given a warning.  If they have a second bad time they receive a one stroke penalty, a third bad time results in two strokes and a fourth bad time results in disqualification.  My understanding is that this is the policy in place for the PGA Tour, and I know it is the policy for the USGA Opens.  Remember Jim Furyk’s group being put on the clock at Olympic Club.  Furyk responded to the news he was on the clock by snap-hooking his drive on the par-5 16th hole.  Perhaps he should have kept up in the first place.

Colored Cards
            This policy has been perfected and made famous by the American Junior Golf Association.  Players are given a set amount of time to reach given points on the course.  When I was a junior golfer, there were three checkpoints.  The number has recently been increased to an unprecedented 6 checkpoints.  At each checkpoint there is a timing official who will raise a colored card, green, yellow or red.  If you have a green card, you are on pace and in position.  If you have a yellow card you are either out of position or behind time.  If you have a red card you are both behind time and out of position.  If you receive a red card, you are responsible for reaching the next checkpoint with at least a yellow card or you are liable to penalty.  The numerous checkpoints involved in this system allow for plenty of chances for players to regain ground and know where they stand.  The downside is the necessity to “throw someone under the bus” if you are stuck in a group with a particularly slow player.  In order to escape penalty it must be agreed that one person is responsible for slowing the group down.
            The AJGA has improved upon this policy with a green, red and double red card version.  It incorporates aspects of all the policies mentioned, including timing, colored cards and remaining in position using flagstick-in-hole times.  You can view their policy in its entirety here:

            There are different ways to do pure checkpoint pace of play.  The Northern California Golf Association runs the most events under the checkpoint system, and has improved upon the system originally adapted from the Royal Canadian Golf Association.  The NCGA uses two checkpoints at the 9th and 18th holes.  Missing one checkpoint results in a one-stroke penalty and missing both would result in 3 total penalty strokes (one stroke for the first checkpoint and an additional two strokes for the second missed checkpoint).
 In order to miss a checkpoint you must be over time-par AND more than 14 minutes behind the group in front of you (any time beyond 14 minutes and 59 seconds).  There is an appeal process immediately following the round if certain unforeseeable and permissible circumstances delayed your group.  Specifically, if your group was delayed by the Committee itself, by forces outside your group’s control (i.e. maintenance or acts of nature) or an individual in your group, you could appeal the penalty.  Poor golf in and of itself is not a reason to repeal a penalty and it is important to determine the overall time-par accordingly.
The USGA took the checkpoint policy and now uses it in their amateur championships.  However, they use four checkpoints.  The extra checkpoints add earlier points of information and a warning for the first missed checkpoint instead of an immediate penalty.  In practice in collegiate events I have run, using four checkpoints improves the overall pace of play for the day, and less stroke penalties are given.  On the down side it requires more officials to properly implement the policy.

The Analysis
Some of the problems with professional pace of play lie in the Rule and policies themselves.  The timing policy is one of the most difficult and most subjective to enforce.  When does the timing begin?  Even with the clearest of guidelines, there is still subjectivity to when you start the stopwatch.  It becomes very easy for a lesser-known player to argue bias when they see leaders or more famous players let off the hook when out of position.
Another issue is the lack of definite flexibility in the Rule itself.  It technically only allows the Committee certain penalties, even though the USGA’s own policy is in violation of those limitations.  We saw this issue at the Sybase Match Play.  Rule 6-7 only permits the Committee to use loss of hole penalties for pace of play violations in match play.  Unfortunately for Morgan Pressel, that results in an overly harsh, almost Draconian penalty for a violation she was only being timed for because of her opponent’s initial slow play.  Had the LPGA been free to use an adjustment to the state of the match penalty (see Rule 4 for examples), the breach would have been far less severe (she would have gone from 3-up to 2-up instead of 3-up to 1-up) and less controversial.
It’s time Rule 6-7 was modified.  Part A should cover undue delay, which is different from pace of play.  It should have the general penalty for any violation.  Part B should discuss pace of play, which should permit the Committee any penalty structure it sees fit (which is exactly what’s already going on).
In the end, the key to successful Pace of Play policies is enforcement.  A policy that is rarely enforced is rarely followed.  Start issuing a stroke penalty to the final group on Sunday when they fall a hole behind and they’ll play faster.  Most importantly, get that first slow group to play more quickly and the whole round will do so.  Tiger had a point.  The pace of play on Tour is abysmal.  There was no reason that they should not have been able to complete around 30 holes on Sunday and they weren’t even close.  It was even worse that today’s coverage had snails and turtles lapping it.  I watched an hour of coverage at lunch.  I managed to see Tiger hole a putt on the 10th hole through his tee shot on the 12th.  One hour and less than 3 holes.  That’s just brutal.
What's your solution to Pace of Play?  Comment Below.
(You can also see the complete text of the aforementioned pace of play policies on the "Pace of Play" page of this blog).

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