The Pace of Play Conundrum: Does Golf REALLY Want To Fix It?
“It’s so crowded; nobody goes there anymore.” – Yogi Berra, on a popular New York City nightspot
Narratives often take on a life of their own, even when they conflict with one another. For example:
Narrative No. 1: Golf has a serious pace of play problem.
Narrative No. 2: Golf is dying, rounds are dwindling, and participation is falling.
Narrative 1 is supposedly a major contributor to Narrative 2.
See a conflict?
It’s so crowded; nobody goes there anymore…
These narratives get repeated so often people accept both as undisputed fact. What no one seems to consider is that fact that these two points appear to be mutually exclusive.
For both to be true we need a third narrative: Golf courses are closing faster than participation is falling, leading to jammed tee sheets and overcrowded courses. If our third narrative is true – and a USGA study suggests it might not be – then is slow play a problem anyone truly wants to solve?
The real issue, however, isn’t whether anyone truly wants to solve the issue of slow play. It’s much simpler.
It’s that no one truly knows how to solve the problem.
FIVE HOURS FROM HELL
Is there anything worse than a 5-hour round? I mean, besides a 6-hour round?
Ask any golfer and he’ll recite chapter and verse who’s to blame for slow play: drunk idiots with no golf etiquette, and morons with ball retrievers; nitwits lining up putts like it’s the 72nd hole at Augusta, and J.B. Holmes-clones deliberating each shot like it’s a cure for cancer; clowns playing from the wrong tees, and hackers who spend too much time in the woods; dipshit walkers, dipshit cart riders, greedy course owners with 8-minute tee times, and I’m sure you could add a dozen or so more without breaking a sweat.
But what no one can agree on is a solution. Why?
Because there isn’t one. Well, not one solution, anyway.
Don’t get us wrong; there are solutions – some technology-based, some course setup/logistics-based, and some golfer awareness-based. But all the technology, setup/logistics, and golfer awareness in the world will help neither a jot nor a tittle unless everyone involved in playing the game takes a good, hard look in the mirror.
A SURPRISING SURVEY
Several weeks ago, MyGolfSpy ran a survey in our Community Forum (you can check it out here). We received nearly 650 responses – certainly not definitive by any stretch, but it does give some insight into the opinions of avid golfers who frequent golf forums.
Some of the highlights:
- 49% of the respondents say slow play keeps them from playing certain courses, but only on certain days; only 2% said it keeps them from playing at all.
- 82% say slow play negatively impacts their enjoyment of the game.
- 52% say the biggest cause of slow play is idiots with no golf etiquette, while only 8% cite course setup issues and only 14% cite not enough space between tee times.
- 27% say they’d pay a premium for a guaranteed 4-hour or less round.
- And most intriguing, 67% say golf courses themselves do not see slow play as a problem that really needs to be solved.
That last one may or may not come as a shock, but when two-thirds of your paying customers think you don’t want to solve what they perceive to be a problem, you have a problem.
“This is something the industry needs to tackle,” says Bodo Seiber, CEO of TagMarshal, a company with a technology-based approach to improving pace of play. “There’s no consistency. If I’m playing in 4:20 this Saturday and 5:50 next Saturday, how am I going to sell this to my wife and kids who expect me home for lunch? Consistency is the key.”
THE TECH SOLUTION
MyGolfSpy first experienced TagMarshal at a Media Day event during the PGA Show in January. Each cart was equipped with an iPhone-looking contraption that served as a GPS, but also let each cart – and a central monitor in the clubhouse – know where each group stood in relation both to the field and to the expected pace of play.
“The truth is a lot of pace of play issues happen because players are not aware or because courses do not manage the variables they can control,” Seiber tells MGS. “We give the course tools to inform players that they’re okay and on track, or that they’re falling slightly behind. Players can now self-manage, and the course can send a message to players if there’s an issue.”
Our experience bore that out. At one point we noticed we were 5 minutes behind and, without saying a word to one another, we picked up the pace. Soon we were five minutes ahead of pace and were playing up the backside of the group in front of us – who were not playing slow – so we adjusted our pace accordingly. At no time did we feel as though we were rushing – it was simply a matter of conscious awareness.
“Often players are just not aware,” says Seiber. “What happens is when a group loses a ball on a couple of holes it now impacts the players behind them. They just have to be mindful and say, ‘we’re 6 minutes behind and actively delaying the group behind us.’ When players have awareness, they can self-manage better.”
MARSHAL VS. PLAYER’S ASSISTANT
TagMarshal has several options for courses, from the GPS-based system to a classic tag with no screen attached to either a cart for riders or a bag for walkers. If there’s a problem, a player’s assistant (TagMarshal’s preferred term for Marshal or Ranger) can help them along. It’s non-confrontational because it’s just data and the group really can’t argue it’s the fault of the group in front of them.
“No one wins in that situation,” says Seiber. “The marshal gets frustrated and ends up not adding any value. If the player’s assistants have information, they can support players better, and they don’t have to go around looking for problems.”
One of the keys to making it all work, says Seiber, is making sure players are properly prepped by the starter before teeing off.
“Our really good operators brief players ahead of time,” he says. “What’s your handicap? How often do you play? Let’s figure out how big of a challenge our course is going to be for you today and suggest appropriate tees.”
Seiber says if golfers insist on playing from the back tees, the course lets the golfers give it a try, adding they’ll be keeping tabs and if the group finds itself falling behind, they might want to move up. “If players know they’re being monitored, it’s like the call that’s being recorded for your benefit,” he says. “It’s about making sure flow moves. It’s not about you; it’s about the groups in front of you.”
“Players are more self-aware, and no one wants to be that group.”
To date, TagMarshal has tracked over seven million rounds in the US, Canada, and Europe, and courses have seen, on average, a 15-minute pace of play improvement. While that doesn’t sound like much, Seiber says the biggest benefit to courses has been creating a consistent and predictable pace of play by eliminating the really bad days, specifically the Saturday-Sunday 6-hour Bataan Death March.
“That could be 50 to 60 days in an eight-month season. Courses will lose revenue and lose happiness with players. What you’ve really done is you’ve balanced the course, so those really bad days don’t happen.”
MyGolfSpy’s survey respondents say slow play is primarily the fault of slow golfers, aka the other guy. Only 7% cite course setup (high rough, narrow fairways, fast greens), 8% cite poor use of 2-person carts, 18% cite playing from the wrong tees, 14% cite short tee-time intervals, and only 1% cite long/difficult Par 3’s.
The USGA says – and TagMarshal’s data verifies – Par 3’s are a critical pace of play bottleneck, especially a long or tough Par 3 early in the round.
The problem is math. If it takes 11-minutes to play the hole and you have 8-minute tee time intervals, someone is waiting. And courses that start with a difficult hole followed by a tough Par 3 get even further behind. That’s a built-in problem, but it can be mitigated to a degree by prep from the starter.
“It comes down to the staff briefing players,” says Seiber. “‘Welcome to our course, it’s yours for the day and by the way, here are some of our feature holes and here’s how to play them.’ It’s player awareness, and the better we prepare them, the more there’s success.”
TagMarshal has also found cart-path only is a pace-of-play killer – which is no surprise – as is cart control, that annoying technology that stops the cart in an area where the golfer isn’t supposed to be. Sometimes tech can get in the way.
In addition, walking clubs that play like a traditional links-style course can be played much more quickly than a course with carts. TagMarshal is hoping to work with courses that feature single-rider vehicles, which would be the first comprehensive study on whether the single-rider option really is a viable pace-of-play solution or merely a fun way to play golf.
The USGA also says high rough, fast greens (11 or higher on the stimp meter) and difficult hole locations all slow down play, as do driveable Par 4’s and reachable Par 5’s. They’re fun, but when you’re waiting for the green to clear the group behind you is waiting, too.
The USGA has several setup recommendations for courses:
- Wider fairways – 40 yards or wider recommended in the anticipated landing zone.
- Shorter rough, particularly on the right-hand side of dogleg right holes.
- Smarter weekend setup in general – cut the rough, move tees forward (except on short Par 4’s and reachable Par 5’s – move those back to make them unreachable) and provide easier hole locations for the most crowded days.
Those are things the golfer has no control over – it’s all up to the course. For golfers, the USGA has a series of videos that help golfers use common sense to control what they can control: be ready to when it’s your turn, bring extra clubs with you if it’s cart path only, improve your short game (keep it on the ground when you can), leave your bag or pushcart near the path to the next hole, and use your rangefinder to get distances while others are playing.
In addition, when disaster strikes make use of Equitable Stroke Control – pick up when you’ve hit your limit, and beginners should agree on a double par-max rule. The USGA also still promotes Tee It Forward, saying 56% play faster and 85% report enjoying the game more when moving up.
The USGA says 82% of you feel course conditions are critical to your enjoyment of the game: no one likes dog tracks. However, 74% of you say pace of play is also critical to your enjoyment. What’s more, the USGA survey suggests you’re willing to pay up to 14.5% more for your greens fees for a consistent and predictable pace of play. If you’re under 45, the results suggest you’d be willing to pay up to 25% more, ostensibly to keep the spouse and kids happy. Golfers over 60 would pay up to 8% more, but 48% in that age group say they wouldn’t pay anything more.
The MyGolfSpy survey says 63% of the respondents would not pay more for a guaranteed four-hour round, believing this is something courses should be providing anyway. Only 27% of those who responded say they’d be willing to pay any kind of a premium. Our survey did not break down responses by age.
Another interesting factoid from the USGA study shows Greens Fees and Tee Time intervals are correlated – the greater the tee time interval, the higher the greens fee. You’d think spreading out tee time intervals would take a bite out of course revenues, but the USGA found exactly the opposite. Going from an 8-minute to a 10-minute tee time interval would reduce tee time inventory by 20%, which the USGA says is fine since it found average peak utilization – or how much of that inventory is actually sold – is a tick below 70% overall anyway.
An example in the USGA study says if an average $50 green fee is raised by 9% (which, based on their survey, was deemed acceptable to a wide range of golfers) to $54.50, when combined with 10-minute tee time intervals, it could result in a net gain to a course’s bottom line of $71,000 annually, with no additional costs incurred and an improved pace of play.
TIME VS. MONEY
Time and money are interchangeable – you can always save more of one by spending more of the other. But what would happen if your local overcrowded, 6-hour round muni raised rates by 9%? Hell, what if it raised weekend greens fees by 25%, or even 50%? How many golfers would say the hell with this, I’ll play somewhere else?
If a course raised greens fees and lost some customers, three things would happen: pace of play would improve, the course would have happier customers and it would have the same, if not more, revenue. One problem: fewer golfers means a drop in food, beverage and Pro Shop sales, which is where money is made.
So again, does anyone really want to solve the pace of play problem?
“A lot of courses don’t want to engage the pace of play problem because they think it will reflect badly on them and their management,” says Seiber. “And a lot of courses don’t think they have a pace of play problem and hence don’t need to do anything about it.”
“Some courses would rather stick their heads in the sand and say we don’t have a problem rather than look at the opportunity and say if we manage the flow better, if we do the on-course experience better, then we have a benefit and a revenue opportunity.” – Bodo Seiber, CEO, TagMarshal
On the other hand, if the pace of play improved dramatically, would golfers have time after the round for a burger and a beer or two? Would they spend some cash in the Pro Shop? Would they enjoy the experience more and not have to face the music when they get home?
How many articles, Tweets or posts do you see about a single rider vehicle or other doodads, ideas or technology, asking if this is the answer to slow play? The truth is there is no one single solution, no one magic wand that will cure pace of play concerns. Pace of play can certainly be improved, but only if golfers and golf courses look in the mirror.
All golfers – even if you’re convinced it’s those other chowderheads and not you – need to be more self-aware and use common sense, and understand there’s a difference between golfer behavior that truly slows down pace of play and golfer behavior that merely pisses us off but doesn’t affect pace of play. In addition, golf courses need to embrace all methods of improving pace of play open to them – including technology, course logistics (including tee time intervals), course set up, and properly prepping golfers before they tee off as to the expectations of the day.
Improving pace of play isn’t about rushing through the round – it’s about a predictable and smooth-flowing round. It’s far more enjoyable to have a consistent pace with little to no waiting.
And whether that total time is 3:30 or 4:10, if it’s predictable and consistent no matter when you play, it makes for happy golfers and happy golf spouses.
About John Barba
John is an aging, yet avid golfer, writer, 5-point-something handicapper, and golf reality show finalist. He’s a fan of Hogan, Jack, and Arnie and still has an old set of MacGregor irons that get to see the course a couple of times a year. “The only thing a golfer needs is more daylight.” – BenHogan
Tagmarshal is a golf course intelligence and pace-of-play management solution that turns pace into an asset. The system uses small “tags” clipped onto golf bags or installed on carts which transmit geolocation data. Industry-leading algorithms identify risk groups with accurate, objective support to alleviate pace challenges before they arise. Public, private and resort courses using Tagmarshal realize substantial returns on investments through improved on-course experiences achieved with less staff as well as increases in daily rounds. Impactful and easy-to-use data analytics, weather data integration and geo-fencing complete the offering.