Sam Dunn: The book on pace of play

By Ron Bellamy | Golf, Oregon |

Slow play (yes, this means you) plagues golf in today’s hurry-up society

An avid golfer, architect Sam Dunn got so frustrated with slow play that he wrote a book about the problem, with numerous tips for golfers to improve their pace of play.

Alas, a best-seller it is not.

“The book is not selling very well because no one thinks they’re slow,” Dunn said. “They see the book and they think ‘so-and-so should get that.’

“It’s always somebody else. Find me a golfer who says ‘you’re right, I’m really slow, I’m the problem.’”

And yet slow play is fast-becoming a big issue in golf these days.

“It’s a hot topic,” said Todd O’Neal, general manager and head professional at Emerald Valley Golf Course in Creswell. “Time is more of an issue today than it was 20 years ago because the generations have changed. … In today’s family lifestyle for the younger generations, there are (children’s) ball games that they both attend, they don’t miss anything, and so the time allotment is a much smaller window, and that’s affected the industry. Pace of play is more of an issue now because time has become such a demand.”

Also making pace-of-play a bigger issue: The penchant of course designers to create visually stunning courses that can be simply too challenging for the average player, from intimidating tee shots to lightning-fast greens, increasing strokes taken and thus time spent.

Traditionally, the pace-of-play standard for a foursome playing 18 holes has been four hours. At Emerald Valley, O’Neal said four hours and 15 minutes would be acceptable as an outer range. Players taking significantly longer than that, and rounds eclipsing five hours, prompted Dunn to write “The Art of Fast Play: Solving Golf’s Maddening Problem of Slow Play,” published last year by Vineyard Stories.

“I can’t believe the things I see people do,” said Dunn, 72, who splits his time between Washington, D.C., and Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., and plays to a 12-handicap.

“It’s a huge problem. I think it’s the biggest problem in golf.”

In his book — which should be on the shelf of every golf shop, and required reading for club members, high school players and those in beginner and junior golf programs — Dunn does the basic math: If a foursome in which each player shoots 90 takes 10 extra seconds per shot, that adds one hour to the time of the round.

Writes Dunn: “There is no single big thing that will solve the problem, no miracle cure. It’s about a multitude of little things. The opportunities for wasting time are many, and each is so small as to be nearly invisible. But they add up.”

Ready-golf fundamentals

Regaining the wasted time that can extend a round by up to an hour begins with golfers making the commitment to saving a few seconds — again and again and again.

“The biggest culprits are people not being ready to play when it’s their turn,” O’Neal said. “If you’re walking up to the green and you know you’re going to be the first one to play, are you doing your homework before it’s your turn? If you’re on the green, and you’re the last person to putt, why did you wait for everyone else to play before you surveyed your putt? Why would you walk to the opposite side of the hole when it now becomes your turn? Those things should all be done before it is your turn to play.

“The other is where people set their golf bags before they get ready to putt. Do they set it closest to the tee they’re heading to next, or do they leave them 20 yards short of the green, walk up and have to walk back? Those are the types of things, where people don’t think ahead, that are irritating and slow things down a lot.”

Dunn, whose book contains numerous time-saving suggestions, from bag-management around the greens (closest to the next tee box), to what a golfer should carry in his or her pocket (a few tees, a green-repair tool and a ball marker, and nothing more), to the practice of hitting “provisional” shots (never, he says), offers these basic tenets of faster play:

When it’s your turn, take no more than 20 seconds to hit each shot. “It’s really plenty of time if you’re ready,” Dunn said. Try this — have a partner time you on different shots, from the moment that it is your turn until the ball is struck. If you are much beyond 20 seconds, an adjustment of your pre-shot routine is in order.

Watch the ball, and your partners’ shots, too. “Looking for lost balls is very time consuming,” Dunn said. “You’ve played with golfers who hit a bad shot, and they turn away in disgust … and they have no idea where it is.”

Play the proper tees. As Jack Nicklaus popularizes the “play it forward” concept, and golf courses introduce multiple tee boxes and hybrid tees, golfers are encouraged to play from the yardages that best suit their game. “It drives me insane to see people playing the back tees, and they can’t reach any green in regulation,” Dunn said.

In a recreational round, make some reasonable adjustments to the strict rules of golf. Dunn believes the U.S. Golf Association should take it upon itself to develop sensible rules for recreational golfers — such as changing the penalty for a lost ball, which by rule requires the player to return to the site of the shot and play again, with a one stroke penalty — that would result in time-saving. Failing that, he encourages golfers searching for a ball known to be somewhere under the autumn leaf-fall, for example, to simply drop another ball and play on, without penalty.

Remember that a riding cart does not, in itself, guarantee a fast round, if golfers sit in the cart while others play instead of getting ready to hit their own shots, or fail to take enough clubs to their ball, or fail to park the carts in proximity to the next tee box.

Course management

Certainly, pace of play is also somewhat in control of the golf course operator. Faster greens mean more three-putts. A 10-minute window between tee times provides optimal player flow; anything shorter — as courses may do to maximize profits — inevitably results in more waiting and slower pace.

O’Neal said Emerald Valley has made a number of modifications to improve pace of play.

“We limb trees now so our branches don’t go all the way to the ground; they’re above head-high, so you have the ability to find balls, let alone play the shot from where it’s at,” he said.

“We’ve shortened rough; as opposed to 2- to 2-½-inch rough, we try to get it an inch-and-a-half to 2 inches and cut it more frequently.”

O’Neal said the course has expanded the size of some hazards; instead of spending time in the rough looking for lost balls, golfers drop a ball near the hazard, take their one-stroke penalty and play on. “Technically, they’re probably not hazards, but it helps us pick up the place of play,” he said.

Key figures in the battle against slow play are course marshals, also called rangers or, as Emerald Valley terms them, “players assistants.”

“My comment to our marshals is real simple: I’d rather have a group of four upset at me for making them play faster than to have a golf course of 100 people upset because they can’t get around in time for their next activity,” O’Neal said. “You’ve got to do the math.”

In Dunn’s view, most golf courses don’t place a high enough premium on skilled marshals who have the ability to detect slow play before it’s too late, and to communicate effectively with the golfers.

“Rangers are some of the most important employees a golf course have, and typically they’re just old guys who love golf,” Dunn said.

Pace (of play) setters

At Bandon Dunes Golf Resort, pace of play on the four world-class courses averaged 4 hours, 18 minutes last year, a time that Bandon Dunes considers to be reasonable. After all, the ocean-view courses are international destinations for golfers of all abilities — nobody wants to feel rushed when paying summer greens fees of up to $295 on challenging courses where all golfers walk, with riding carts not permitted. And the Bandon Dunes courses do offer multiple teeing options, and a staff of rangers to help golfers and gently urge them along when necessary.

“We believe good pace of play is paramount to the experience at the resort and in golf,” director of golf Jeff Simonds said.

Eugene Country Club has a written pace-of-play policy, mandating four-hour rounds during its “prime time” playing period. Groups that don’t adhere to the four-hour rule (the outer limit is 4:10) are subject to a warning letter and, upon further violations within a two-week period, restricted from playing during “prime time” hours for a period to be determined by the club’s golf committee.

“It’s something that’s talked about on a somewhat regular basis on our golf committee …,” ECC head professional Bill Morach said. “I think probably one of the biggest parts about it is continual education. Whether that’s through newsletter articles — here’s a little blip on three ways to play faster — you put some of those in every month or every other month.”

The warning letter is a practice implemented during Morach’s tenure.

“There wasn’t a whole lot of bite to what we were doing,” he said. “You’d remind the same half-dozen groups that they were running slow, and it was the same guys every day. So we started that pace-of-play letter … and all of a sudden it became the Scarlet Letter.

“We don’t publicize it anywhere, we don’t post it on a bulletin board, but we send it to the whole group and the next time they play you hear them saying ‘I don’t want to get a letter.’ It’s worked very well for us.”

At times, ECC will expect players to move even faster — the expected pace on all tee times up to and including 8 a.m. on Saturdays and Sundays from April through October is three hours and 40 minutes; on busy days, early rounds that go out at a slow pace, Morach noted, affect the tee sheet for the rest of the day.

The ECC policy is noteworthy in that the club allows fivesomes, with no relaxation of the pace expectation.

“Fivesomes really have to be on it,” Morach said. “A lot of times you’ll see the first two guys putt out and start wandering over to the next tee. It might take away from some of the social stuff that might happen on the green, but if they’re going to play in a fivesome, it’s what they’re going to need to do …

“It’s truly ‘ready golf.’”

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