Imagine the following scenario:
Joe the Pro is standing in the center of the fairway with a club in his hand, taking a few practice swings while looking ahead at his target on the green. The group of players immediately ahead of him has already fired their tee shots away on the next hole and heading in the general vicinity of wherever their golf balls have come to rest. A gentle breeze is detected as Joe continues his intense stare down at the target 175 yards away, creating the need to break from his routine to talk things over with his caddie a few paces away. Moe, Joe the Pro’s caddie, digs the yardage book out of his back pocket and a deep discussion ensues as they both look over the notes. Joe bends down and pulls a few tufts of grass out of the ground beneath him, flings them up into the air and watches intently, as though he’s paying homage to Aeolus, also known in Greek Mythology as the God of Wind. Moe, picking up on the ceremonial rite, does the same.
After taking one final look at the notes, Joe motions to Moe that he prefers a different club, and Moe quickly obliges the exchange. Moe, understanding the importance of feeding his player’s confidence, is overheard saying, “I like it, boss,” as he throws the bag strap over his shoulder and moves off to the side once again. “So 159 covers?” Joe asks, as he looks ahead while taking a few relaxed practice swings. “159 covers,” Moe replies. “Good club, good swing. Just trust it.” A few seconds later, Joe the Pro is distracted once again, this time by the loud roar coming from the gallery surrounding the green on the next hole up ahead. He backs away from the ball with his head down and waits once again for the total silence needed to regain the intense focus required to execute the successful swing that he’s rehearsed over and over in his mind. A few more seconds pass before he once again goes through the tedious process of addressing the ball, as he slowly and deliberately places his left foot into his stance, then follows suit with the right. He regrips the club as he wiggles his shoulders and hips, a technique that he’s always employed at address to relax the muscles before each and every golf swing. After a series of small waggles and a few final glances at his target, Joe sets the club directly behind the ball, the final step of the process that is his prelude triggering his backswing.
Just a millisecond prior to pulling the trigger, however, a loud alarm similar to that of a battleship’s warning of an imminent attack pierces the airwaves for 3-5 seconds, before a Tour rules official standing just inside the ropes across the fairway addresses Joe with a megaphone. “PERSONAL FOUL – DELAY OF GAME, JOE THE PRO. 1-STROKE PENALTY, NOW LYING THREE. PLAY AWAY PLEASE.”
Yes, seriously. Tell me, what other purpose does an accompanying rules official serve? Just about every group already has one following them during the round anyway. He’s aware of every situation. He recognizes when there might be certain procedural circumstances that require an additional 20-30 seconds of time granted to a player. He also recognizes which player (or players) in the group, like Joe the Pro, takes entirely too much time waiting for the gnats to finish farting three fairways over. And it doesn’t have to be publicized on television during each occurrence (although I do feel that public shaming would go even further in addressing the issue than a 1-stroke penalty itself). The group’s rules official could inform the offending player of his shot-clock violation as they’re leaving the green and walking to the next hole. A big to-do that could potentially put a player’s image at risk in front of the TV camera could definitely be avoided.
No More 4-Corners Offense
But why is it that the PGA Tour seems to be the only major sports organization that condones undue delay of play? Both college and pro basketball have shot-clocks that enforce pace of play. Both college and pro football have shot-clocks as well. What would happen to either of those sports, at either level, if the shot-clock wasn’t implemented into their rules? For starters, it would drag out the game to unbelievable lengths. Instead of a typical football game lasting 3 hours today, it could easily become 5 hours long, maybe longer. But equally as important, it would stifle the excitement of those sports from a fan’s perspective. Those of us who’ve been around for a while and followed college basketball back in the day remember Dean Smith’s infamous “Four-Corners Offense”, which he regularly implemented once his UNC Tarheels got a lead in the second half of a game. The shot-clock didn’t exist back in those days, and teams could literally hold the ball for a single possession for incredibly long periods of time, preventing the opposing team from having a fair chance to compete. In fact, Smith’s tactics are probably THE biggest reason why the NCAA implemented the shot-clock rule to begin with. Some might recall the official tipping point back in the 1982 ACC Championship game, where North Carolina got a small lead in the second half and literally held the ball for nearly the entire final 12 minutes of the game. Can you imagine how excruciatingly painful that was to watch that game on television? The fans who watched, both in person and on national television, couldn’t believe what they were seeing. The biggest conference game of the season and a majority of the second half was about players from one team playing keep-away from the other? The fallout from that game was enough to force the NCAA’s hand. That very next season, the shot-clock was introduced and it’s been around ever since.
Selling the Concept
Look, ultimately the fans pay the salaries, not the owners. If your product isn’t producing excitement – you lose your share in the entertainment marketplace. We see various examples of this concept throughout the year, be it with noncompetitive sports teams that can’t fill stadium seats, or once-great now-fading Hollywood actors in badly scripted movies that can’t sell tickets at the local box office. Once a sports team, movie production company, etc. loses the ability to capture the interests of a sizable audience, it becomes no longer relevant.
And despite the influx of incredibly talented players today playing on Tour, their product is slowly becoming irrelevant. It costs a lot of money these days to go to an event, and that’s not considering the serious bucks spent on hotdogs, beer, and potato chips sold at the overly-priced concession stands. If you go to a football game – you know that you’re gonna see plenty of hard-hitting action without spending an entire day there, and you enjoy being in that arena. That’s why you’ll spend $100 on a nosebleed section ticket and $25 on two hotdogs and a beer – it’s a good time. Compare that to a PGA Tour event, where EVERYBODY is following the most popular players hole-t0-hole. Good luck trying to squeeze into the front of a gallery of 5000 people who don’t mind watching Tiger scratch his ass and rub his nose while waiting endlessly for his turn to play. Back at Torrey Pines two weeks ago, it took over 4 hours for several groups of players to finish the remaining 11 holes of the tournament that Monday. FOUR HOURS, ELEVEN HOLES.
Obviously we realize that when people go to watch a tournament, most expect to be there most of the day, especially on Thursdays and Fridays before the Friday cut and a full field of players are still in the game. But these people go there to watch players gracefully swinging golf clubs and hitting high quality shots that they could only dream of replicating themselves, not to watch them diddle and dawdle around for hours on end trying to figure out if the 2 mph breeze is coming from the east or the west. When we watch it on television, it burns our asses that the coverage spends a majority of the telecast watching these players diddle, dawdle, fiddle and fart for three minutes before ever seeing a ball go in the air. But it continues to happen, and for reasons unknown to me – enough people continue to show enough interest to keep the show going week to week. And commissioner Tim Finchem, the head number cruncher on the PGA Tour, knows this too. So he’s not motivated to change things, he’s more than happy with his tour’s Four-Corners Offense week in and week out. It’s not a secret, he’s deemed the subject of slow play much ado about nothing for the past decade in interviews with the media.
But there’s another issue that gets overlooked repeatedly, and that’s the impact that his product has on the game at our level, the grassroots. And that certainly does influence interest, because when people get frustrated enough with 5-and-a-half hour rounds when they play, they eventually lose interest in playing. When they lose interest as players themselves, most lose interest in every aspect. I know this from personal experience. When I go through an inactive period as a recreational player – I don’t follow the professional side of the game nearly as much. When winter sets in and I’m stuck at home for 2-3 months because of the weather and the inability to play, I find it incredibly difficult to even talk about golf, much less write about it. So when people find themselves seriously questioning if it’s worth abandoning their families on one of only the two days they can spend quality time with them, to go play a round of golf? Yes, commissioner Finchem, it does impact your product in the end. Your players, due to your indifferent attitude with regard to how long it takes them to make a single golf stroke, are setting an incredibly sad example that gets reproduced every single day at the local golf clubs back home. It has become an epidemic, and it’s sad that the degree of neglect that has been on display for far too many years now indeed requires something as outrageous as an actual shot-clock to address the issue.
But that’s where we find ourselves today. The game we enjoy playing as amateurs back home – it’s losing steam. The cost to play and maintain interest alone is enough to drive interest away from your product, but you refuse to acknowledge it. Instead, you continue to act as though these things aren’t real. That’s why you would laugh at such a notion of implementing a shot-clock, just as Dean Smith did, I’m sure, at the start of the 1983 season.
In the end, it’s not what you want, or your players for that matter, although I’m sure that an overwhelming majority would prefer to play at a much more reasonable pace. It’s what the fans, a majority of whom are also players themselves, want to see happen. And if it takes a Tour official carrying a stop watch on every hole reminding the players that their clocks are officially ticking, by all means -make the change, implement the rule and start setting the example.
It goes beyond what players and fans want. It’s what the traditions of The Game expect.