Common sense was prevalent here in the desert earlier this week when a decision was made to permit European Tour players to wear shorts in practice rounds and pro-ams. Sadly, though, it wasn’t evident as Jordan Spieth became the first victim of the circuit’s new slow-play “monitoring” policy.
Technically, chief referee John Paramor was acting by the book when he approached the world No 1 on the final tee to say he’d taken too long over a birdie putt at the previous hole. Spieth had, indeed, taken one extra look at the line with the four-footer after his approach had almost pitched full toss into the hole then came close again to going in as it spun back.
One of the reasons he did so, however, was that he knew the group behind wasn’t waiting back in the fairway. In fact, the said three-ball never had to wait at all during the entire round. While not at every hole, Spieth and his playing partners, Rory McIlroy and Rickie Fowler, did face the occasional hold up, including at that final hole despite having taken an eternity at the second – their 11th – after Fowler had asked for a ruling.
It could only have been because of it that they found themselves “on the clock” a hole or two later as there was no evidence of the marquee group being slow. McIlroy is one of the game’s quickest players. Fowler, for all that he “footers” a bit before taking the club away, also gets on with it. Spieth can be deliberate on the greens, but he’s by no means one of the sport’s snails.
Encouraged to implement the new monitoring policy by the players themselves, the European Tour should be applauded for wading into the war against slow play, but this, I’m afraid, wasn’t a good example of how it can be implemented successfully. Yes, if Spieth had been holding up the whole course, but that clearly wasn’t the case.
Left facing a £2,000 fine if he is pulled up again, the American was understandably baffled, though, in keeping with his conduct since becoming the game’s new superstar with his two major wins last season, he neither created a scene after being confronted by Paramor nor went over the top with his comments on the matter afterwards.
“It was a bit odd,” said the 22-year-old after signing for a four-under-par 68 to sit four shots behind the leader, compatriot and amateur Bryson DeChambeau. “The guys behind us hadn’t even reached the fairway, so it didn’t make any sense to me. If I can, I’ll try and wash it away… because it doesn’t affect this round but if I get another one, I get fined and I don’t think there was necessarily a reason to get that bad time. Rory and Rickie were very surprised.
“I understand that if you are being timed and you are taking longer than the allotted time, you get a bad time. But it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense when our group had caught up and it had no effect on the round. It’s a bit of a grey area.”
Concurring, McIlroy hit the nail on the head. “Sometimes I feel the refs have to use a bit of common sense,” he said. “I’ve played a lot alongside Jordan and he’s far from a slow player. A referee spoke to us going from the third green to the fourth tee that we had played the third hole slower than the allotted time. But we were not delaying anyone behind us and keeping well up with the group in front, so I don’t see the need to say anything. It’s just probably a bit of over-enthusiasm in the first round of the first event of the year.”
Defending the ruling, Paramor said he felt Spieth might have been confused because of a different interpretation on the PGA Tour. “Pace of play on the European Tour is measured by whether a group keeps to the starting interval between groups, rather than if they are on the same hole, as it is in America,” he said.
Taken at face value, it could be viewed as refreshing that referees aren’t scared to target the game’s top players. This, however, was an unnecessary intervention and you can bet your bottom dollar that blatant examples of slow play were evident here yesterday yet went unnoticed because, unless every group has a walking official with it, slow play can’t be monitored properly.
If it upset Spieth, he responded in the best way possible by making a birdie at his final hole and was “very pleased” with his 68. “My driving was short and crooked today and this is a driver’s course, so to shoot four-under is incredible, really,” he said. It left him within two shots of McIlroy, which was astonishing given how well the world No 3 performed with the big stick in his hands. Spieth’s 24 putts to McIlroy’s 28 was the telling statistic, but the American heaped praise on one of his biggest rivals.
“It was a ball-striking masterclass,” he said. “It was the Rory I have seen win major championships. It was a pretty unbelievable round on a very challenging course. He was on his A-game and, if he keeps striking it like that, I’m going to have to make up for it somewhere else.”
But for two sloppy three-putt bogeys, McIlroy would have been tied for the lead. It was still a good day’s work, though, for his first outing since winning the DP World Tour Championship in Dubai in November. “It was a great way to start the year,” admitted the 27-year-old, who has finished second four times in this event. “I felt in practice last week I was swinging well and I came back mentally fresh and excited to play again. I could not be happier.”