Pace of play is a serious problem. But much of that problem is a matter of perception. Eliminating the stroke and distance penalty would go a long way towards solving the problem.
As I wrote in The Stupidest Penalty in Golf, stroke and distance has a huge impact on pace of play.
The impact can be seen on a course that has environmentally sensitive areas next to the fairways--a course like Callippe or Metropolitan, in the San Franciso bay area. It turns out that those courses are the most fun to play, and have the best pace, because:
The result: No one spends any time looking for their ball, and there is no massive incentive to do so, given what amounts to a two-stroke penalty with stroke and distance.
I'm ok with 2-stroke penalty and drop in the fairway, or take 1strokle and drop at the edge of the jungle, as at the courses mentioned. Either one works. The one thing that does not work is the stroke and distance penalty, especially with regard to pace of play.
The difference becomes immediately apparent when you get to the last couple of
holes at a course like Callippe, where the environmentally-sensitive rule is not in
effect. A game that had been chugging along at a good pace suddenly slows to a
Someone should go out there with a stopwatch, sometime, and get an average of the time spent per 100 yards at all the holes that don't have that rule, compared with all the holes that do.
It's important to know, too, that pace of play doesn't seem slow when you're moving along at a regular clip. If it's moving fast, you feel rushed. But if it's moving a long a little more slowly, you just adjust. But it seems glacial when you have to stop and wait. It's like the difference between a freeway that has slowed to a crawl, but is moving along at a steady 20 miles an hour, vs. stop-and-go traffic that averages 20 miles an hour. The latter is more aggravating, and seems a lot slower.
Simple observation and practical logic suggest that eliminating lost-ball searches and the onerous penalty for not finding them would have the largest possible effect on pace of play that I can imagine. And doing so will have an even greater effect than one might at first imagine, because an even more deadly threat to pace of play are the "lost" balls that are in or near the fairway!
Professionals don't have to worry about such things. They have forecaddies that mark a ball that landed anywhere within sight. Only a ball that is seriously offline causes a lengthy search for the ball.
But out here in the amateur ranks, we don't have forecaddies. We have balls that land a foot or two off the fairway. If we walk straight to it, we have a decent chance of finding it. But if we take our eyes off of it for a second, it can be hard to remember which tree it landed behind.
The problem becomes even more acute when you walk to a cart and start driving down the cart path. You immediately lose the landmarks that gave you a visual picture of the landing area--and even if you have the right angle, the ball could have gone a lot longer or shorter than you thought, which leaves you hunting for your ball in the wrong area.
What happens? Everyone in the foursome starts hunting for the ball, to save the onerous stroke and distance penalty. That's not just one person searching for several minutes. That's everyone holding up their shots for several minutes.
And most of us will spend that time, especially after a good hit that you saw land in the fairway. It is just manifestly unfair to have to take a huge penalty, under those circumstances.
But without that penalty, take a minute looking for it. If you don't see it, no matter. Drop a ball and play on. If you come across it a little farther down the fairway, great. Play that one and pick up the penalty ball. Whatever you do, keep moving forward. That is the basic requirement of anything that can be reasonably regarded as a decent "pace of play".
Honestly, who misses a putt from a foot away? On a really fast, severely sloping green it's possible--if you're sloppy and not paying attention. But unless you're in a critical tournament, tell your playing partners "It's good", and tell them to pick it up. Better yet, knock the ball over to them, or pick it up and throw it to them. When you start doing that, everyone is playing to a hole that is 2 feet in diameter. That's a big difference from a six inch cup. You just add one to your score and move on.
It's a small thing, but if you figure that you save 30 seconds lining up the putt and stroking the putt, and you do that for two or three players a hole, you'll have saved 10 minutes or more over the course of the round. That's 10 minutes that the people behind you aren't waiting. Stack up 10 minutes in one foursome after another, and it doesn't take too long before you've squeezed in a whole extra round for the day.
Remember: Unless you started first thing in the morning, there are 17 groups ahead of you on the course. If each of them plays their round in 10 minutes less, how much less time will your round take?
As for "tournaments"--unless you're playing for the kind of money that provides a living, why on earth should anyone care whether you hole out the last 12 inches? Pick up I say! And move on... I'm waiting in the group behind you!
And if you are playing in a tournament, Inverted Stableford Scoring makes it possible to keep score the way you usually do, and play the game as though in a match--conceding gimmies without necessarily affecting the outcome of the tournament. Consider it!
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