In the late ’70s I was working at a Washington D.C., Ford Foundation funded research institute called the Police Foundation. About a half dozen of us were golfers. We added a few more friends and formed the Police Foundation Golf League. I did the handicaps. We played 9 hole matches after work on Wednesdays at a Bethesda muni, Falls River. On weekends I would play 18 hole rounds with other friends on more challenging courses. I discovered if I computed my handicap on the harder courses I would get something very different than if calculated with just my scores from the muni. As a researcher, I wrote two papers on what I thought was wrong with the USGA handicap system and send my proposals for what later became the “Slope System.” To my surprise I got a four page hand written letter from Gordon “Joe” Ewin, USGA Executive Board Member telling me how much he enjoyed reading my work, that two people in California had similar ideas and that I should keep the USGA informed of my work. Subsequently I was asked to attend the USGA’s 1979 National Meeting at The Plaza Hotel in New York City, and asked to be a founding member of the USGA’s Handicap Research Team headed up by Frank Thomas. My paper helped convinced the USGA to improve the handicapping system.
At the same time I developed a computer based analytic system to analyze a golfer’s play shot by shot and provide guidance on where they were losing strokes and what areas they should concentrate on. I did analyses for many golfers. I even visited PGA Tour headquarters in Bethesda, MD at that time, and showed them my system which I offered as the basis for a statistical program for the Tour. I was told “no one is interested in golf statistics.” Three years later the PGA Tour came out with a rather weak system but at least they were no longer the only major sport without a statistics program. When PC’s came into existence, I marketed it and sold about 800 copies after a four-page article about golf and statistics was published in Golf Digest. I became the first person to do significant shot by shot analyses of the play of golfers from Jack Nicklaus to 30 handicappers. I created a measure of putting proficiency which today is called strokes gained putting. My work caused me to be recognized by the leading journalists in the field as the go-to person for golf statistics.
MW: Organizations within golf talk about slow play all the time. The key word — talk. Do you see such groups as the USGA, PGA of America, PGA & LPGA Tours, R&A, being really focused on actually doing something concrete?
LR: Everyone seems to doing good things now, each taking on and trying to work on a branch of the tree describing the “problem.” The USGA and the R&A have made the issue a priority which is what is needed. In the past the subject would come up, there would be discussion for a while and then nothing. That is why I formed the three45golf association – www.three45golf.org –, to be sure there would be a continuing, ongoing effort to be sure we make real progress. I am now working with a very exciting new start up, Fairway IQ (www.fairwayiq.com) which is going to completely change the way we manage pace and player enjoyment.
MW: Speaking of the USGA they have a slow play protocol they follow for all their championships — save for the US Open. Does that make sense given the magnitude the US Open has on influencing people throughout golf regarding speed of play on the course?
LR: I’m different in that I give the pros a bit of a pass. The pressure on them is so different than on the club or publinx golfer that I don’t mind them playing that way. But it is a problem for the Tour in that some pros are fast and others slow. Some are fast walkers and some are fast putters. There is significant imbalance. Nicklaus was a fast walker — spectators had to run to keep up with him from shot to shot — but once there he took his time. What I don’t like is the TV showing the players lining up their putts for two minutes. Just don’t show it and I’ll be ok.
MW: Amazingly, the USGA had a situation in which a slow play penalty was given during the 1981 US Open at Merion but then promptly rescinded it. Only two other slow play penalties were given after that and both to journeyman players. That’s hard to believe since rounds routinely extend beyond five hours now in competitions of the highest order. Can a program have any real meaning if the toughest sanctions are not imposed when merited — such as the imposition of stroke penalties on a more expedited basis?
LR: I was there in 1981. If I remember properly the penalty was when a player played slowly and his group took 4:20 to complete the round. We would love to have a US Open round be 4:20 today!
MW: On the PGA Tour if penalties of any type are imposed on players there’s no public mentioning of it. Do you agree with this procedure?
LR: Your question implies punishing slow players is the solution to the problem. We need to reinforce good pace behaviors. Everyone should be a teacher and a student to understand the complexity of the factors that determine pace. We are all part of the problem. The Three 45 Golf Principles are designed to teach people what to do to play quickly and enjoyably. Look ’em up. They’re on my site and in my book, Golf’s Pace of Play Bible through Amazon. But the real break though will come with the Fairway IQ system which will provide real time feedback as to whether golfers are on pace or off.
MW: Without sounding cynical — if a person pays $200 or more to play golf and they happen to be playing slow — what incentive does management of that facility have in possibly removing the person or group from the course to the benefit of others? It seems management in many cases simply talks the talk but rarely walks the walk.
LR: First we need to reposition rangers from “enforcers” to “Pace Facilitators.” Most likely a slow group is slow because they have bad pace behaviors, like all going to one ball, then moving to another’s ball, etc, rather than all going to their own ball and being ready to hit when it is their turn. Who tells people that now? The Fairway IQ system will give them real time feedback which can be used to adjust and improve pace.
MW: In the discussion of slow play – what is the percentage of responsibility that falls on management — since it is management that operates the facility? One classic thing many courses do is have beverage / food carts patrol the course and they routinely interrupt play to sell their items. Thoughts?
LR: At most daily fee/public golf courses, the single most significant contributor to slow play is too short tee intervals. Most courses try to get as many people on the course as possible — either for revenue purposes or simply to “please” as many people as they would like – and that just leads to congestion, the biggest factor at those courses. If everyone on the Cross Bronx Expressway was in a Corvette, they’d still only go 5 mph. Tee intervals of 7 or 8 minutes guarantee rounds of 4 and a half hours — five hours – even more sometimes. In those cases it isn’t the players; it’s management.
MW: Is it easier to implement a system that identifies slow play at private clubs rather than public facilities because the private ones can more easily discipline those cited?
LR: Private clubs have that advantage. I know clubs that keep track of the times people take and give feedback. If done as encouragement I am supportive. I have proposed that clubs have a Pace Chairperson like they have the Green Committee Chair, the Handicap Chair, the Tournament Chair. Put someone in charge to teach people what to do and give them feedback. But there are things a public facility can do as well. My book addresses that.
MW: How should courses in general deal with the issue of slow play — especially if a sound program is being considered for implementation? Frankly, when attempts to deal with slow play are carried out usually the targets are women and junior players — the low hanging fruit. Comments?
LR: The most exciting thing on the horizon, as I have said, is the work of Fairway IQ, a group for which I am the Chief Analytics Officer. We are building out a full management system to help clubs with their pace problems while maximizing enjoyment. We will be able to help clubs and courses to understand their members’ and patrons’ pace capabilities and preferences. Management needs to get a much better understanding of their golfers in all respects. Pace is just one. We are trying to provide management the information they need to maximize the golfer’s experience.
MW: Golf is facing a future with not enough players in the pipeline — those less than 35 years old. One of the reasons cited is that golf often takes far too long to play and this turns off many from the game. Can golf really get to a four hour round as the ultimate goal?
LR: I believe golf’s intrinsic qualities will keep this game going strong forever. But it does face challenges, especially with young people. New forms of play might have to be encouraged. I played a lot of 9-hole golf growing up. My local muni — Fairchild Wheeler in Bridgeport, CT – had a great 5 hole “Loop” which could be played after work before sundown. Perhaps golf parties could be organized for young people. But as for time I think 4 hours works if you enjoy the 4 hours. Waiting on every shot is not enjoyable. But 4 hours of hitting and moving is great fun. We need to squeeze out of the game the waiting that often takes place.
MW: Slow play is often a 19th hole item — given all the recent discussions taking place at various high levels — are you optimistic / pessimistic something of real magnitude will happen this time around for all levels of the game?
LR: I am very optimistic about the game. It is a game for your whole lifetime with fresh air and exercise. It is a great challenge. It can be played together by everyone not just the young or just men. As for correcting the problems associated with pace, now that people are talking about it, that the major organizations are trying to build a community on the subject, that researchers like me are providing a scientific basis for understanding and changing things, and that organizations like Fairway IQ are bringing private sector technological creativity to bear to help management, things are only going to get better.