PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — In more peaceful times, when Tiger Woods had gone six months without losing and golf seemed to revolve around him, he ended a monthly newsletter with a rare trip to the soap box to complain about the pace of play on the PGA Tour.
“Before I go, I would like to talk about slow play,” Woods wrote. “It’s been an ongoing problem on the PGA Tour for a long time.”
That was in 2008.
When he finished The Players Championship on Sunday, Woods measured progress with one word.
“Worse,” he said.
The focus last week at the TPC Sawgrass eventually returned to the guy holding the trophy, as it should. The PGA Tour had reason to celebrate for a couple of reasons. It had a worthy champion in Matt Kuchar, who won the money title two years ago and has an infectious smile that makes him a fan favorite. Also, the tournament finished on Sunday.
Kevin Na was only joking — we think — when he spoke about his battle to pull the trigger and his bizarre habit of purposely whiffing on a swing so he could start over. “But just bear with me, and hopefully we get that (Sunday) round in,” Na said.
In fact, the topic came up on the eve of The Players Championship when commissioner Tim Finchem was asked if the PGA Tour felt a sense of urgency to play faster and an obligation to set an example for golfers everywhere. His answer included this nugget that made little sense.
“I actually think we might want to experiment with penalty shots,” Finchem said. “But I don’t think penalty shots make a difference, to be honest with you.”
How would he know?
This week at the Byron Nelson Championship marks the 20-year anniversary of the last time a PGA Tour was assessed a one-shot penalty for taking too much time. That was Dillard Pruitt, now a rules official who carries a stopwatch. That one stroke wound up costing him $9,600 — when $9,600 actually meant something. He was fined $1,000, and he was relegated to play in the last group for the next two weeks.
Stewart Cink was asked about progress with the pace of play. A few years ago, he was fined $20,000 for getting put on the clock 10 times in a season, and he has worked to improve.
“Is it because of the leader?” Cink replied on Sunday as Na was headed to the practice range.
Sure, it’s easy to pick on Na. He is changing his swing and fighting some demons to get comfortable over the ball. He became a sympathetic figure to some in the media for his honesty and his pledge to try harder, though it should be pointed out that Na has been slow ever since he joined the PGA Tour. Not so sympathetic were some in the gallery who shouted out, “Pull the trigger!” and “Hit it!” to reverse effect. He had to back off shots and wound up taking even longer.
Slow play has been part of the conversation all season. If golf were a presidential campaign, slow play would be the equivalent of the economy.
Luke Donald was on holiday in Barbados when he was watching the final round of the season-opener in Hawaii, which featured Na, Jonathan Byrd, Ben Crane and Webb Simpson in the last four groups. He took to Twitter and ended one plea by saying, “Slow play is killing our sport.”
Finchem addressed the broader problem, which represents somewhat of a Catch-22.
Ask just about any rules official and they would say the size of fields make it nearly impossible to get around in a reasonable time. Can anyone remember the last time the cut was made on a Friday at Riviera? That’s why the Masters gets nervous when its field size approaches 100 players.
But to reduce the field is to take away playing opportunities, the very thing Finchem is determined to provide. It’s not a simple solution.
“We elect not to do that,” Finchem said. “Because as much as we like to see a stronger pace of play, the playing opportunities for the number of players we have had are more important. We’ll generate the playing opportunities first, and take our lumps second. It’s as simple as that.”
Solutions are not that easy to find or this would have been fixed years ago. And it’s not fair to compare the pace on tour with how long it takes to play golf at your local club. In recreational golf, the pins aren’t four paces from the edge of the green, tucked behind bunkers. The greens aren’t as firm as a hardwood floor. A putt isn’t worth $399,000, which is what it cost Rickie Fowler when he missed that 8-footer on his last hole.
The problem on the PGA Tour might be attitude.
Donald said what annoys him most is when a player does not starting thinking about his next shot until it’s his turn. The way it has gone for the last 20 years, why hurry when on one else does?
“We know when they drive up and tell us to hurry up, it means nothing,” Geoff Ogilvy said. “When I first came out and someone told me to hurry up, I got all flustered and was rushing. Now, it’s a laugh. Yeah, we’ll try. But some guys don’t even try because they don’t do anything.
“I bet if you polled the tour, half the fast players would say, ‘Give me penalties,’ just to scare everyone.”
Or maybe the tour could try a perk instead of a punishment.
“You want to help slow play?” said Roger Maltbie, the NBC Sports analyst and former PGA Tour winner. “Hand them their cards on the first tee and say, ‘If you bring this back to us in less than four hours, you can take a stroke off your score.’ Let’s see how that works.”
It couldn’t hurt.