Slow play

Jonathan Gauntin Golf

When I was about 10 years old I remember quite clearly first playing golf with a 1.68" size "American" ball. I didn't buy the ball, neither did someone give it to me, I found it in the rough on an exposed and windswept part of the course where I played as a boy - Woodhall Hills - between Leeds and Bradford in West Yorkshire.

Bull-Bay-GC-Feb-09-069_website.jpgIt was a Titleist or a Macgregor, but I can't remember the number - anyway, it looked as big as a tennis ball when I placed my club behind it. I'd been used to hitting the smaller 1.62" size "British" ball and was perfectly happy using it, as I'd learnt to play the game using it.

Concerning the "American" ball, the biggest impact it had on my game as I recall was that it seemed more difficult to putt with and to get it in the hole. I may be wrong and I may be looking for excuses, but it always seemed easier to get the smaller ball in the hole. As I started to use the bigger ball full-time in the mid-late 1970's I got accustomed to using it and soon preferred it. I liked the way it sat up better on the fairway and in the rough - maybe it was easier to see and then find it in the rough, too.

So, the bigger ball may be the reason, in some respects, for slower play and in other respects it may well speed play up. Irrespective, the 1.68" ball is now used worldwide and it is unlikely that it will change its size again. It was not until 1988, 14 years after the "American" ball became compulsory at the British Open that the 1.62" ball was finally phased out by the R&A.

Also relating to the golf ball, there is a growing campaign in the golf industry for golf ball manufacturers to change the physical make up of the golf ball to prevent it from flying so far. Primarily, this is in order to preserve some of the older, shorter courses, but, more importantly, though, it is to prevent golf courses from being continually lengthened to cater for the length which golfers now hit the golf ball.

At the KPMG Golf Business Forum held at Powerscourt, Ireland in May 2008 Jack Nicklaus said the worst thing that can happen (in the game of golf) is for the average golfer to say this golf course is too tough - the game is supposed to be fun.

Between about 1935, when steel shafts were introduced, and about 1995, he said that the game of golf didn't change a great deal; in sixty years the golf ball only travelled an extra 15 - 20 yards. Since 1995 the golf ball goes now about 50 - 60 yards further. This affects all parts of the game and especially, its traditions. Open Championship venues are being lengthened every year in an attempt to counteract the length that pro' golfers now hit the ball - with some on the tour hitting drives, on average, in excess of 300 yards.

9th-Green-panorama_website.jpgInterestingly, in a recent article by Jim Dunlap in Golf Inc Magazine, May 2008, he states that National Golf Foundation data in USA indicated that the total number of golfers has declined by 2% between 2005 and 2007. There are a number of reasons for this, but slow play has a big impact. On golf courses of about 6000 to 6500 yards length, golfers, in general, used to be able to play 18 holes in three and a half hours or less. Now, on courses of 7000 to 7500 yards it takes in excess of four and a half hours, and sometimes up to six hours. As a result it takes up most of a day to play golf and this directly impacts upon family and home life - add to this the pressures of work, it's not surprising there are fewer golfers wanting to take up the game.

Picture Right :- Reconstructed Ninth green at the Cavendish GC in Buxton completed by Gaunt & Marnoch Ltd picture taken by Photographer - Tony Marshall

Children nowadays have so many options on offer - not just with other sports but with much less healthy pursuits, such as computer games and TV - the modern child wants pretty immediate satisfaction and golf doesn't offer that in it's present form.

Nicklaus says the solution is for the R&A and USGA to bring the golf ball back by 10 - 12%, i.e. restrict its flight by this distance. How this can be achieved is difficult to say, however, the golf ball manufacturers know only too well how they have achieved an extra 10 - 12% in the first place, so a reduction should be pretty easy for them to work out.

In every case, golf courses should be designed for the average golfer, not for the pro' - which means a length of about 6,500 yards (5,900 metres) from the standard tees. Extra tees can be placed further back for competitions and tournaments, to provide the challenge for the longer hitter/lower handicapper.

I'm a member at Cavendish Golf Club - a classic, traditional 18-hole course in the Derbyshire Peak District, designed by Alister MacKenzie for the Duke of Devonshire in 1923. The course has changed very little since it was built, playing 5721 yards from the mens backtees, par 68, however, it is an excellent test of golf and fun to play. And, you can play 18 holes in 3 hours or so. This is a perfect example of what can work and should work today. There are hundreds of courses like this throughout the world, but they generally don't get rated as highly as the "championship" courses or the monster courses over 7500 yards.

In May 2008 the Peugeot Golf Guide published a newsletter, written by Gaëtan Mourgue d'Algue, extolling the virtues of the new US Masters champion, South African Trevor Immelman. He states how disappointing it was to see the final two-ball take 5 hours to complete the course and considered it a "deplorable example for all golfers" that Immelman took 5 or 6 practice swings before each shot, then stood behind the ball with club shoulder high extended from his right hand to check his aim not just once but twice and often three times.

Slow play, Mourgue d'Algue says, is now widely considered to be the curse of modern golf and its effects could be disastrous for the future of golf as a sport. He offers up his solutions to slow play:

- reduce the size of greens: 5 pin positions are enough, as approach shots are played faster than a putt;
- whenever possible retain the option of bumping and running the ball onto the green, keeping hazards on both sides rather than surrounding the green with water, which means players have to drop (more time lost);
- wherever possible shorten the distance between green and next tee (as suggested by Alister MacKenzie in his "essential features of an ideal golf course" in his book, Golf Architecture in 1920);
- cut the rough just enough so that players do not lose their ball every time;
- avoid placing hazards too much on the right, as most players tend to slice;
- provide a choice of tee-box for every level of play and player;
- relearn how to evaluate distance by using our eyes, rather than see a 36-handicapper calculating yardage like a pro down to the nearest yard with a GPS device that does not always work.
- the change of ball - Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer were already recommending such a move in the 1960s, and it would mean a return to tournament courses of 6,000 metres, less heavy investment, more reasonable maintenance costs and… faster play.

Picture :- Below Golf Resort Kaskada, Brno, Czech Republic - a Gaunt & Marnoch Ltd golf course which Jonathan designed in 2004 - 27 championship standard holes plus a 6-hole short (academy) course.

Kaskada---short-course_website.jpgHe says that the players are not the only ones to blame, but it must not be forgotten that amateur golfers play the game at their own pace and this is influenced by what they see on TV. They see the pro's playing in tournaments on SkyTV taking more time than necessary and feel that they have a right to do the same. The problem is that a pro golf tournament should not be considered as the "norm". These guys are playing golf for their living - they're being sponsored to perform well and if it means they need to take an extra minute per shot to make the difference between winning and losing then they'll do it. However, promoters and architects also have their share of responsibility: in China for example, there is currently no new course shorter than 6,800 metres for a population that is only just discovering the game. This is completely wrong for an emerging golf market - there needs to be a core of native golfers who are taking up the game - what is needed are academy and short courses, with really imaginative practice facilities attached, designed specifically for beginners and juniors.

But, in the meantime, maybe every golf club should employ a "slow play monitor" or "speed policeman", to keep golfers moving at an acceptable speed. When I was working at St Andrews in 1987 I remember watching on with amusement at a group of Japanese golfers who actually ran between shots - I was told that they did this because in Japan they learnt to play golf on courses where time limits were strictly adhered to and penalties were paid for slow play.

Maybe the quickest and easiest change should be made on the green, but I disagree with what Gaëtan Mourgue d'Algue says concerning green sizes. There is, in my opinion, no reason why a smaller green should speed up play, especially if the green still has undulations and contours on it. Golfers will still struggle to hole out on a smaller green, also, if the green putting surface is smaller, it becomes more difficult a target to hit in the first place.

What is being overlooked, though, in my opinion, is the diameter of the hole itself - the 4¼" diameter that is currently used happened for a completely arbitrary reason in 1829. It was a notion supported by the story that the tool used to cut the hole was built from some excess drainage pipe that was laying about the Musselburgh Links in Scotland. That ancient hole-cutter is still in existence and is on display at Royal Musselburgh.

In new rules issued by the R&A in 1891, it was determined that the hole size should be standard on golf courses everywhere and the size they decided on was 4.25 inches diameter. As was usually the case, the rest of the golf world followed in the footsteps of the R&A.

Putting is the most time-consuming part of the game. So, what would make the powers in charge of the game consider changing the size of the golf hole (for amateur golf only) to, say, 6" (150mm diameter)? On short or academy courses, maybe the hole size could be even larger, say, 8" or 200mm diameter.

The result would be:
· Fewer putts;
· Lower scores - what difference does it make if golfers regularly go round courses in 70 shots or less?;
· More exciting and enjoyable rounds of golf and more holes in one;
· Quicker rounds of golf, which are more fun to play.

The potential result is that golfers with handicaps of, say, 24 plus (and higher) will begin to improve their skills and abilities more quickly and begin to enjoy the game more. They, in turn may encourage just one friend or member of their family to take up the game. This will attract new golfers to the game and increase participation in the sport and breed a new interest in the sport.

In addition to this, the golf ball can still be modified to fly 10-12% shorter distance - this will help to maintain the traditions of the sport, whilst still moving forward and developing the game. The two methods can work together.

Golf courses could still be designed exactly as they are - same specifications for the tees, greens, bunkers, lakes and fairways. The academy or short courses would be designed along the same lines, except the fairways could be made wider and shaped in a concave profile to collect the ball and keep it in play, rather than repel it. Carefully developed mowing regimes would allow golfers to be a bit more wayward, too, with more semi-rough and less thick rough - to keep searching for balls to an absolute minimum (as suggested by Alister MacKenzie in his "essential features of an ideal golf course" in his book, Golf Architecture in 1920).

The concept of short courses has not been exploited in the UK for many years. However, in the middle part of the 20th century there were a number of municipal pitch and putt or par-3 courses built by forward thinking city and town councils. As a boy I played on a 9-hole par-3 course in my local park in Leeds - I even used to take my Dad's lawn mower there to cut the grass and speed up the greens! I remember in particular there were two such courses in the public park in Norwich, both built inexpensively, but maintained to a good standard. These courses were really busy every weekend with golfers who were not members of local golf clubs, but who loved playing there regularly.

There needs to be a move back towards this kind of golf to encourage new participation and to offer the golfer with limited time a satisfying round of golf in 1 or 1.5 hours. This golf is fun to play and these facilities are not expensive to build. Profit can be achieved on operating facilities such as these quite quickly, too, especially if it is located on the urban fringe (and built on landfill, damaged or derelict land), ideally close to a supermarket.

The land required to build an "academy" would be about 10-15 hectares (25-38 acres) and within this area you could build a 300 metre floodlit driving range, short-game practice area, putting green, chipping and bunker practice area and a minimum of 3 golf holes - one par-3, one par-4 and one par-5 - this way, the golfers get to hit every club in the bag. An investment of £500k (construction cost) would provide a really good facility. The return on investment is pretty rapid, too, because the driving range is the main revenue generator and this stays open after dark. And added to this would be a café/restaurant, a shop and a team of PGA qualified teaching professionals.

So, in summary, there are numerous methods being offered to speed up play on the golf course. However, it is likely to be a long time before the manufacturers are forced by the authorities to do something to restrict flight of golf balls - so the lengthening of golf courses will inevitably continue to happen, thus making golf a slower sport.

Alternatively, well-designed, short "academy" courses, built on smaller plots of land by forward thinking town and city councils or private developers, using larger diameter golf holes is the answer to offering a speedy and fun alternative to "snail-golf".

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