In PGA Tour circles, it's called the Prize. The Prize, the Tour's version of the Scarlet Letter, is what a player gets for being timed for slow play on 10 occasions in a season. A player—along with everyone he's playing with—gets timed when his group falls behind either the pace of play (a.k.a. Time Par) or the group ahead of them. Getting timed is called being on the clock, and a player who takes too long to play a shot while he is on the clock is in danger of being fined and possibly penalized, although the latter is rare.
The Prize is actually a $20,000 fine and was first levied against Brent Geiberger in 2004. Tour rules officials decline to provide other details, but the Prize is believed to have been handed out to more than 10 but fewer than 20 other players since '04. The guilty include more than one major champion, and last year a player allegedly earned the Prize by the Memorial Tournament, in early June. After a player is given the Prize, each additional timing in a calendar year draws an additional $5,000 fine.
The Prize is based on the assumption that the threat of a fine increases peer pressure on slow players because pros paired with a known snail run the risk of becoming a Prize winner by association. Players who have had multiple timings tend to become speedier—and testier—when they're paired with a known slow-baller. "I don't care who you are, nobody wants to write a check for 20 grand," says Mark Russell, the Tour's vice president of rules and competitions.
Slow play is a longtime problem as well as an inevitable source of frustration on the PGA Tour. "Nobody ever does anything about it," gripes rapid-playing Rory Sabbatini, who brought up the topic, again, at a recent players meeting. Says Brian Claar, a rules official and former Tour player, "The fast guys all say we don't do anything, and the slow guys all say we pick on them."
The reality is that slow play is almost unavoidable on Tour. Half of a tournament field of 144 players (some have fields up to 156) tees off on the 1st and 10th tees in the morning; the other half does likewise in the afternoon. "With 156 players on a course—that's 26 threesomes on 18 holes in each wave—you don't need a degree from MIT to know those numbers don't work," says Russell. "We try to keep a flow going. If a player never had to wait to play a shot, he'd never say a word about pace of play. It's the stand-around-and-wait part that's the problem."
Pace-of-play rally-killers include requests for rulings, lost balls, taking drops and bad play, among other variables. Rules officials felt a little like Maytag repairmen last week during the Players Championship. Until Sunday there was only light wind, and scores were low. When Spencer Levin tapped in a 17-inch putt to conclude first-round play at 7:30 p.m., it meant that the entire field was off the course in under five hours. O.K., it was close—four hours, 59 minutes—and on Friday the pace was 10 minutes slower, but breaking the five-hour barrier is an uncommon feat at the demanding TPC Sawgrass Stadium course.
On Saturday, with only 70 players making the cut and the field playing in twosomes, play went ridiculously smoothly and the final twosome finished in 4:10. Only five groups were timed for being out of position through three rounds, compared with an estimated 30 timings at last year's Players. Being a golf cop is a thankless job, but last week wasn't so bad. "We're like airline pilots—hours of boredom followed by moments of terror," Russell says.
Here's your PGA Tour Slow Far, Slow Good Handbook: Everything You Need to Know About Slow Play but Took Too Long to Ask. (And let's pick it up, people, you're taking forever to read this.)
Forget Greenwich Mean Time. On the PGA Tour, Time Par (no relation to Old Man Par) is what matters. Time Par is the time it should take to play each hole, as determined by the rules crew after careful study. At the Players, for instance, Time Par was two hours, 14 minutes for the front nine and 2:15 for the back, plus five minutes to make the turn. Time Par for the entire round by a threesome was 4:34, 3:58 for a twosome.