I wonder if the problem of slow play in golf isn't like the weather: you can talk a lot about it, but you can't do too much about it. You can encourage people that for the good of the game they should play faster—and they should. You can even put in a rule or two to speed things along. But too often such legislation does not work well. What is fair for one man is distinctly unfair for another; what works well under one set of conditions does not work under another.
What the USGA tried to do in the recent U.S. Open—as far as continuous putting and marking and cleaning the ball on the green was concerned—was a beginning, and did help speed up play. Perhaps my getting angry over being told to play faster will help, too, because the controversy is sure to emphasize how serious the problem has become for both the professional and the weekend golfer.
The USGA was trying to reduce playing time in the Open from the five and a half hours per round needed in the previous two years to four hours. This is a drastic change to expect overnight. The important part of the USGA program concerned action on the greens. Each player could clean his ball on the green only once. When he started putting he was required to hole out, unless he had to stand in the line of somebody else's putt. This may be fine for amateur golf, but would not necessarily be good on the pro tour, where little things mean so much. An Open course is usually in superb condition. The greens are smooth and immaculate. To clean your ball only once is no hardship.
But what about the course in the desert where the dew at night is so heavy? In the morning the greens are often covered with grass clippings. The unfortunate golfer who tees off at 8 a.m. is going to find himself staring at something resembling a green snowball after his first putt. The later starter gets a big advantage. Other tour courses have greens that have been top-dressed or greens with mud problems. Obviously, a golfer must clean his ball more than once under these conditions. But you can't keep changing the rules from course to course. Too many penalties would result. This is one difficulty with trying to solve the pro tour slow-play problem with legislation.
Another big cause of slow play is the recent trend in golf-course design. Courses are getting longer and greens bigger, much too long and much too big. The game is becoming one of two shots and then three putts. I've always thought that the fun of golf was in hitting shots, not putts. The larger the greens, the more time putting takes. I know that the USGA is proud of how fast play was at Olympic, compared to Bellerive in 1965 and Congressional in 1964, but those courses were long and had large greens. Olympic was short, and had small greens.
And when is a round too slow? Especially a U.S. Open round. Some pros, like Doug Ford, can rush around a course in two and a half hours and be at their best. Others need four hours or more. Each player develops his own tempo. If you try to rush him his tempo breaks down. He will start to hit bad shots and, in all probability, will go from slow to slower.
This is exactly what happened to Bruce Devlin, Tony Lema and me at Olympic. On the second day we all had problems with the 4th hole. By the time we got to the 6th hole we had fallen a few minutes behind the threesome ahead of us. A USGA official told us all to speed up and walked right along with us to see that we did. This was unsettling, and hardly speeded up play. Tony went from about one over par to four or five over. Bruce immediately bogeyed a couple of holes. And I bogeyed four in a row. It was a perfect example of what can happen when you force a player to change his tempo. I might add that during the last nine of this controversial round, which took only 4:22, we did not slow down the field. At one point there was more than a full open hole behind us.
I think that we on the pro tour must work and work hard to speed up our play. Five and a half hours is too long for 18 holes, and we all realize it. I am among the slower players, and I know that I have improved my rate of play a lot in the past two years. Many of us have. But I don't think rules or stopwatches are the answer on the pro tour.
The larger problem is the influence that our slow play has on the amateurs who emulate us. The average golfer should try to understand two things: First, we are playing for our living, which makes a man careful. Second, I think we have the basic skill and experience to make our extra care pay off in lower scores.
If I had a tip for the weekend golfer, it would be that he is likely to score better playing at a brisk, refreshing pace than he will by tormenting himself with all the dos, don'ts, maybes and mights of every shot. He will certainly enjoy the game more, and he will help solve the creeping paralysis that is spoiling amateur golf.