Thursday, November 7, 2013

USGA Pace of Play Symposium

            Today I was able to attend the USGA’s much anticipated Pace of Play Symposium via webinar.  It was a great collection if very intelligent and experienced professionals from the golf industry with creative, viable solutions to the pace of play issue.  From my perspective, a lot of what came from the symposium was reinforcement.  There were a lot of principles put forth that were common knowledge to some of us in the industry, but had only been generalizations without the hard data to back up those assertions.  What was very comforting was to see the union of data from public, daily play and tournament play and to see the leaders of the industry recognize the different roles pace of play has in each of these 2 fields.  I want to highlight some of the key findings from the individual presentations and roundtables and credit the presenters as much as possible.

Field Size and Tee Time Intervals
            I put these two together because in many situations they are in essence the same thing, or the same end result.  Field size is for tournament play and tee time interval is for public play (also for tournament play, but with tournaments that is determined largely by field size).  The bottom line emphasized throughout the symposium was that tee time intervals cannot be too close together and field sizes cannot be too large.  It really is all about traffic on the golf course and when you overload the course, the pace suffers.  Hard data from research by Matt Pringle and also Lou Riccio showed how decreasing the tee time intervals was a recipe for disaster. 
            Many courses are trying to “maximize” their tee sheet through 9, 8 and even 7minute intervals.  The truth is that using those decreased intervals is hurting their tee sheet and their business.  One of my responsibilities at my job is to procure 116 qualifying sites for our championships.  A decent portion of the courses actually charge us for using 10 minute intervals vs. their own 9 minute intervals stating that they lose 2-3 tee times from the increase.  The problem is that by putting so many players out so quickly, they are hurting their own facility, whereas the 10 minute intervals we use is actually manageable. The data showed that if the “cycle time” is greater than the tee time intervals the course is going to slow down, and slow down significantly.  So the bottom line from the research is to use tee time intervals appropriate for your golf course and that intervals less than 9 minutes are almost never a good answer.
            For tournaments, the answer is an appropriate field size.  Former PGA Tour Commissioner Deane Beman stated that with a 144 player field, or 72 players in a morning and afternoon wave, a 4:20 pace of play is only achievable on an absolutely perfect day.  You “Can’t beat the math,” he said.  AJGA Executive Director Stephen Hamblin supported that sentiment when he discussed calls he had received from other organizations that wanted to emulate the AJGA pace system and achieve the same results.  He heard these organizations using 90 players in a wave for a two-tee start and it’s no wonder they have pace of play issues.  It is simply too many players on a golf course (30 groups).
            I ran into this issue several weeks ago at the Stanford Intercollegiate.  We used the four checkpoint pace of play system and on two of the 3 rounds, our final group finished in over 5 hours.  I was approached with the question, “why?”  Why, I said, because we have 90 players in a single wave, it’s simply too many groups on the golf course.  There is nowhere for them to go.  The fact that our second round had the final group finish in 4:50 was one of those nearly perfect days that Commissioner Beman was talking about.
            So the end of the story is that courses should stop trying to push as many players as possible onto their course and use reasonable tee time intervals and tournament administrators need to recognize the consequences of increased field sizes.

The Courses
            There was a lot of discussion and several presenters that discussed the role of golf courses in the pace of play issue.  One of the more telling presentations came from David Hueber who discussed the role of the 1990’s golf course design culture that increased the length and difficulty of courses and therefore the pace of play at courses across the United States.  There was discussion about the economics behind why courses followed and still follow that trend, and how it can be reduced.  One of my favorite presentations was early on from Jim Moore at the USGA who demonstrated how they are trying to help courses adjust their maintenance practices to assist with pace of play and maintenance costs.
            The hope is that contemporary course designers will start to take pace of play into consideration and note that difficult doesn’t mean great, but it is also the role of course managers and superintendents to recognize where they can save time for both their own staff and for players.

The Rules
            I am certainly not an advocate of attacking the Rules as the answer to solving the pace of play issues, but there were several valid arguments and issues raised during the symposium.  The most spirited argument came from Deane Beman who argued vehemently in favor of bifurcation to make the game more playable for the average golfer.  He made valid points that the Rules of Golf have already been bifurcated and are currently bifurcated in some ways and that further changing the Rules for professionals and amateurs would not be a detriment and would increase playability and enjoyment for the weekend golfer.
            There was a question during the morning roundtable about reducing the search time for a lost ball.  Currently, a five minute search is permitted before a ball becomes lost and that 5 minutes under various pace of play policies slows a course or tournament field down.  We were told that the 5 minute search time is being reviewed and maybe (a big maybe) in the future that time may be decreased.  The general comment was made that the Rules as a whole are being reviewed in part with pace of play in mind.

Player Responsibility
            One of the Rules Official mantras is that the player is responsible.  For pace of play, for knowing the Rules, the player is responsible.  What came out of the symposium did not change that, but emphasized that there is more to that than three words.  Jeff Hall pointed back to the Committee “with a capital C,” and that there are many things the Committee can do and need to do to help the players improve pace of play.  This doesn’t mean to hand-hold players through checkpoints, but make sure all the tools are available and that everything we can control is done with the player’s interests in mind (from crosswalk control, to policy education, signage, course setup and even restroom/snack locations).  Stephen Hamblin emphasized how the AJGA 6-checkpoint policy still holds the player accountable for their pace but provides all the tools necessary from the Committee.

Important Notes
            Kevin Heaney from the SCGA, while discussing tournament policies hit upon a “methodology” if you will, that applies across the board with regards to pace of play:

-Set Expectations
-Make the Expectations Clear
-Communicate the Expectations
-Enforce the policy

He emphasized that the expectations have to vary based on the customer.  A tournament program can be more aggressive than a public facility because it’s a closed environment, but like Troon Golf, public facilities can set their expectations, clarify them, communicate them and then hold their customers to those expectations.  The key is to make those expectations reasonable and to rid the industry of the myths that accompany pace of play. 
            Some of those myths include the 4 hour round, one group is the entire problem and that players are solely responsible for pace issues.  Getting rid of these myths includes both individual and club outreach. Heaney did a great job highlighting different kinds of individual and club outreach programs from pace of play pledges to the SCGA’s online resource center and success stories highlighted in their Fore magazine.
            Something that came up several times was distance-measuring devices.  Why are we not using distance-measuring devices?  Hamblin asked what is the difference between gathering distance from sprinkler heads and using a DMD?  This is why the AJGA now permits DMD’s and he advocated that it should become the rule.

My Take
            First, the symposium was far more refreshing than I expected.  I expected to hear the same dogma that has been repeated and that simply wasn’t the case.  I believe this was a productive, insightful gathering that revealed important findings and methods from across the industry.  Some important key points that I want to emphasize or re-emphasize:

-Decreased Tee Time intervals are a bad idea

-Increased field sizes are a bad idea.

The above two items go hand in hand and your pace of play is mathematically linked to the intervals you use and the field size you choose.

-Course maintenance can both improve pace of play and reduce costs.  Creative management can create a win-win for both customer and facility.

-Public Outreach is not only important, but it really does work.

-We now have hard data supporting these principles, but it is up to Committees and facilities to use the research to support their efforts to help pace of play.

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