How to beat slow play


Sean Dudley
By Adam Lawrence

Few things annoy golfers more than slow play. Eavesdrop on conversation in your club bar if you don’t believe me. In between the moaning about missed putts, bad backs and bumpy greens, you’re sure to overhear a number of people complaining about the group in front of them, or the group in front of the group in front of them, or the queue on a particular tee. For virtually every golfer, a slow player is anyone who takes longer to play than he does.

Slow play is more than just an irritation, though. For pay-as-you-play golf operations, the equation is very simple: if play is slow then revenue is low. Given that golf is rarely a high margin business, maximising the number of rounds played can make the difference between profit and loss.

Busy golf courses employ a range of methods to speed play. Rangers patrol courses, ‘encouraging’ players to get a move on. Scorecards and other course literature carry exhortations requesting groups to keep up with those in front, and to allow faster players through. In the US, courses often have signs on cards and tees, indicating how long groups should have taken to reach that point. But all these methods are treating symptoms rather than dealing with causes. Golf architect Forrest Richardson reckons that most golf operators have little clue as to the real issues. “Many of the beliefs of golf designers and managers with regard to slow pace are pure bunk,” he says. “We have grown up believing that an opening hole par three is bad, that too many par threes are bad, that it is the golfer who is mostly at fault. We even believe that the rude marshal who travels about the course glaring at players is somehow the answer. In reality, when you view the problem from a scientific viewpoint, you find how wrong many of these beliefs are.”

For his scientific viewpoint, like lots of other golf architects and course operators, Richardson takes the advice of industrial engineer Bill Yates, founder of California-based Pace Manager Systems. Yates, who has made a career from studying pace of play issues, believes that the only solution lies in attacking the problem at its root. “We have to define slow play,” he says. “There are two definitions – the golfer’s and the operator’s.” And it is, he reckons, the golfer’s viewpoint that is most important.

“It’s counter-intuitive, but golfers don’t judge pace by the amount of time it takes them to play,” he explains. “Rarely do you hear golfers complaining about the length of time a round took. Instead, they form their views through the perception of time, specifically how often and how long they have to wait during a round. You hear things like ‘It was slow out there today… we had to wait on every shot’.”

Yates therefore believes the key to dealing with pace of play issues is the flow of the course – and thus that the most important aspect is the skeleton of the course itself, the routing. “A course that has long walks might feel quicker than a contiguous course because of waits,” he says. “So what architects need to do is to design a course that has a good natural flow, and where waits are minimised.” Forrest Richardson is in full agreement. “In my book Routing the Golf Course I wrote: ‘The flow of courses is about rhythm, balance and sequence’,” he says. “A routing plan must give careful attention to each. Without these qualities, the golf course might as well be an ordinary maze and the golfer a rat looking for cheese.”

Fellow US golf architect Bobby Weed – who has plenty of experience of designing courses that must cope with slow players, having spent several years as chief architect for the PGA Tour, echoes this view. “The single most important aspect of golf course design may be the time spent routing,” he says. “Many projects today are dependent on real estate to finance the golf course and thus incorporate road crossings and sprawling, linear layouts to create development frontage. The core golf course is somewhat rare today. Certainly, where possible, minimising the green to tee distance is the favoured design fundamental. To achieve this, it is preferred to route the golf course first or in conjunction with the overall land use plan. Given today’s golf market, it is absolutely essential to route courses that efficiently use the land, thereby allowing the player to use his time efficiently. Developers who insist on the tired old formula of lining courses on all sides with development are quickly killing the game by making it too time consuming and costly. No matter where in the world it is built, a golf course should always enhance a development’s bottom line while also maintaining its own.”

Brian Phillips of Niblick Golf Design, an Englishman living in Norway, has seen both sides of the pace debate. Brits are renowned for their quick play, but Phillips reckons that Norwegian golfers are among the slowest he has seen. He too sees routing as the central issue. “We’ve all heard the saying ‘drainage, drainage, drainage’,” he says. “Well, speed of play can be increased or decreased depending on routing, routing, routing! The great courses seem to flow well, especially from green to tee not just tee to green. Some of this is because the tees were located closer to the green than modern safety standards allow nowadays but also because the routings of the classic courses work well. One thing that I learnt from my partner Graeme Webster is to try never to send a player backwards after he has hit the tee shot. By sending the player forward you help create rhythm throughout the round. Try to design the paths so that you keep moving people forwards and keep a positive rhythm, it feels negative to walk away from your tee shot. If you can create rhythm in a round then golfers seem to play better and this normally helps them play faster.”

Take the new Castle course at St Andrews, currently being built by architect David Kidd and his lead associate Paul Kimber. Yates, who has worked for the R&A on a number of occasions, happened to be in St Andrews during the design stage, and was asked to consult. “I didn’t alter the routing of the Castle course at all,” he says. “David Kidd proposed two routings, and I had a look at them and ran some simulations. I concluded that one particular routing would be easier to manage over the years and would produce a better flow of play. The irony is that it was the longer, slower routing, but that it would create breathing room out on the golf course, and thus be fractionally smoother to play.”

The nub of Yates’s work lies in calculating how long specific holes will take to play, and thus modelling the flow of golfers around the course. Most of us are aware of the places where blockages normally occur on the courses we play often. The challenge is to find ways to ameliorate those blockages. The debate over routing is all very well for architects faced with a blank canvas on which to create a new golf course. But how can existing courses improve their flow, if the routing – which is probably the hardest thing to alter – is at the centre of the problem?

“The architect sets the bar – how long it should take to play the course,” Yates explains. “This depends on length, hazards and routing, and all of these can be objectively measured. What we have to do is overlay on top of that the way the course is managed. You could have the most gorgeous platform continually producing lousy experiences, because it is not managed or loaded properly. That doesn’t happen because staff are incompetent, but because the relationship of holes, hazards and the like could make it difficult to manage.”

“One mistake people make is assuming that the golf course must be made easier to speed play,” he continues. “Pete and Alice Dye once told me ‘The harder the course, the faster it will play,’ and I think that contains a big kernel of truth. When you play a golf course with lots of water hazards, what do you do every time you fall foul of one? You curse and hit another ball. It’s not like a cute, delicate pitch shot around greens that takes a long time. But when courses are hard to play because of deep rough, that’s a different matter. Very deep grass on the inside of doglegs and in blind landing areas, for example, is a complete killer in terms of speed of play. So the question for existing golf courses is are there any little tweaks that can be made to optimise the flow?” Bobby Weed concurs, citing the same authority. “Proper delineation of hazards and marking the golf course can minimise delays more than one realises. My mentor Pete Dye once told me: ‘Create a hazard so the player is either in play or out. Anything in between just slows down play’.”

Design, placement and maintenance of hazards contributes greatly to the pace of play. Although water hazards, because of their all or nothing nature, may be quick to negotiate, there are plenty of good reasons against their over-use. But other hazards need to be carefully considered too. “You would have thought that bunkers would slow up play but I do not believe this,” says Brian Phillips. “They slow up play in relation to the fairway but golf would be boring without them. Rough, though, just frustrates the golfer and can slow play considerably as people hunt for balls. The great thing about a bunker is that you can find your ball very quickly. For the mere mortal the decision of what club to use is normally a sand wedge and if the architect has designed bunkers to help the flow of the course then movement forward will always occur. Pine Valley is a great example of this. Many a square metre there is sand but it is still easy to play quickly.”

Specific detailing of bunkers makes all the difference, Phillips says. “One criticism of the Old Course is the design of the base of its bunkers,” he explains. “They are very flat and many a time you can find your ball up against a revetted wall and have to play out backwards. Some would say that is the charm of the bunkering there but I disagree and think that you can still have penal bunkering but shape the bottom so that the ball will roll back to the middle of the bunker. Especially on a course that is so congested as the Old Course, I think this would speed up play considerably.”

“Large bunkers really slow down play because of the increased time it takes to rake the sand,” says Bobby Weed. “And long linear shapes or clusters can achieve the same purpose as the one large bunker. The architect must provide more than one access point, as too many bunkers only have one way in and one way out. Also, the selection and quality of bunker sand is important. Firm playing bunkers are preferred and play faster than soft, fluffy sand which often results in buried lies – a real contributor to slow play.”

The flow optimising issue is well illustrated at Pebble Beach in California, long (in)famous for its glacial speed of play. As a resort course, but one with iconic status, for many players a round at Pebble is a once in a lifetime experience. So they are inclined to take their time, take photographs, and revel in the moment. This is all to the good, but when the result is six hour rounds, even the star-struck golfer is entitled to feel he is not getting value for his near US$500 green fee.

The problem was especially intense at the legendary par three seventh hole, with its tiny green on a point, practically surrounded by the Pacific Ocean. Few golfers would mind a short wait in such circumstances, but the queues were becoming unacceptable when Yates (who lives in the area) was called in. It’s a value and an expectation issue,” he says. “Almost every player who comes to that tee has expectations higher than any golf course could deliver. So the course needed to reduce the frustration that comes with being stuck. Instead of looking at the seventh as the source of the problem, we looked at the sixth. The management had moved the tees on that hole forwards to speed up play, but that just bought players to the seventh tee more quickly. If you can’t make golfers play a hole more quickly – and in those circumstances it’s impossible – then you must slow them down a little earlier on, so they arrive at the problem tee more widely spaced. So the solution was to lengthen the first six holes slightly, and slow play up through that part of the golf course.”

Starting intervals are vital. As Forrest Richardson mentioned earlier, architects and golfers alike have come to believe that a starting par three is a guarantor of slow play. Look at the writings of classic architects such as Braid and Colt, both of whom emphasised the need for one or two strong (read long) holes to ‘get the players away.’ But Yates reckons this belief is mistaken. “If you start with a decent par three, then the starting interval for the golf course is established right away,” he says. “Lots of people don’t like a par three opening hole because it puts a long iron or hybrid in their hand when they aren’t fully loose, but it sets the pattern for the course. If you have a par five opener and people tee off when the group in front is out of the way, you might have an interval of eight minutes. But when players reach the first par three, it will take them more than eight minutes to play. And as a result you will have a jam.”

One of the biggest pace of play challenges lies in the short par four. Golfers of all handicaps love these holes; they offer an opportunity even for lesser players to card a morale-boosting birdie, and for the longer player to prove his status by driving the green. But in pace of play terms, they are poison. Nowadays, with big drivers and hot golf balls, what proportion of golfers fancy their chances of reaching a 280-300 yard par four? So groups find themselves waiting on the tee for the green to clear – and Yates’s research shows that such a hole typically takes 12-15 minutes to play. “In no way would I want to imply that we should do away with or avoid designing these wonderfully strategic and exciting holes,” he says. “That is to say, the architect should feel absolutely free to design the perfect hole and the perfect routing for each site he is given. Unfortunately, I cannot think of any hole type preceding the driveable par four that would mitigate the possible wait on the tee. Therefore, courses that have such holes simply need to be managed more carefully, particularly on days when the course is full. Now regarding their management, I would not establish an excessive starting interval to accommodate the playing time of one hole, as that would restrict play and revenue too much. Instead, I would ensure that we had the optimum starting interval for the course then I would station a ranger in the vicinity of the driveable par four hole, and as backups occur, have him institute a wave-up procedure. That should help a little and it will also let the groups arriving at the hole know that the management team is on the ball and working on their behalf.”

Brian Phillips says: “Although short par fours are great matchplay holes and are extremely fun to play they do create waiting on the tee. So if it is a public course that is being designed I think the architect should think very carefully about how many of these should be built. The other problem is the short par five, because it creates the same choices as the short four. However, no matter what length of par five there is always one ego – and in my group it’s usually me! – in a fourball that thinks he can reach the green in two (even with a 220 metre carry over water). This again creates queues, But we can’t just play medium length par fours can we?”

This article first appeared in issue 8 of Golf Course Architecture, published in April 2007.