John Huggan: Time for a change

OK, TIME out. Given all the nonsense in golf right now – Vijay Singh’s use of antler spray and subsequent propensity for litigation, slower and slower play, the rumbling aftermath of Tiger’s Masters drop and the banning or not of so-called “belly” and “anchored” putters – the time has come to ask the obvious question.
'Chubby' Chandler is frustrated by the increase of slow play. Picture: Getty'Chubby' Chandler is frustrated by the increase of slow play. Picture: Getty
'Chubby' Chandler is frustrated by the increase of slow play. Picture: Getty

Is anyone out there actually in charge? And, if so, do any of those people really have any kind of grasp on what they are supposed to be doing?

Based on the last few months, there can only be one answer to both. A resounding “No!”

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Part of the problem, of course, is the vast number of organisations involved in the administration of a simple game (hit ball with stick until ball is in hole, then repeat 17 more times). Golf at all levels is an alphabet soup of acronyms: R&A, USGA, SGU, PGA, SLGA, ET, LET, LGU, LPGA, IMG, ISM. The list is lengthy and, surely, too often redundant.

But is there a viable solution? One who thinks not is Andrew “Chubby” Chandler, head man at International Sports Management (ISM), who number Lee Westwood, Darren Clarke, Charl Schwartzel and Louis Oosthuizen among their higher-profile clients.

“I don’t think we will ever see one body in charge of everything in golf,” he says. “It wouldn’t work. The USGA and the R&A have been around forever operating separately and coming together when they need to. Right now we are seeing that in their approach to the longer putters.

“The two big tours are almost as well established. The PGA Tour is 44 years old, the European Tour is slightly younger. They come together less frequently and operate pretty much independently most of the time. To try to mould them into one body would be almost impossible. There are too many issues, too many egos, too many business facets and too many commercial interests.”

Pathetically, the same sort of barriers to progress and the application of commonsense also exist lower down the golf food chain. Here in Scotland the proposed merger of the Scottish Golf Union and the Scottish Ladies Golf Association floundered on what was nothing more than the blatant self-interest of certain point-missing parties within the SGU.

And, just last week, Scotland’s top golfer, Paul Lawrie, found himself outside looking in on the 24-strong field for the upcoming World Match Play Championship in Bulgaria. Run by International Management Group (IMG) on behalf of the European Tour (ET), the rather strange criteria for entry clearly need to be looked at with a less biased eye. Despite having won two European Tour events in the last 15 months, despite having played a crucial role in Europe’s stunning Ryder Cup triumph last September and despite currently being ranked higher than 14 of those who will tee up this week, the former Open champion did not merit an invitation. Ridiculous.

Perhaps the only issue where there is any kind of hope for first agreement, then effective action – although it might be best not to hold one’s breath – is slow play.

That playing 18 holes has never taken more time than it does now is a disgrace that must surely unite the game’s establishment at all levels.

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“Everyone needs to come together on slow play,” agrees Chandler. “The tours have been especially negligent. They should have taken the lead and set an example for every amateur golfer. It’s getting ridiculous everywhere. I play more golf in the States than I do in the UK and a round now takes longer at home than it does in America. Part of that is down to them using carts, but the fact is the Americans generally play quicker than we do. They don’t have ridiculously complicated pre-shot routines. They don’t line-up putts six different ways. In Britain it’s awful.

“I go to my home club, Mere, on a Saturday and I see people taking forever to hit the ball. Some take as long as Keegan Bradley or Jim Furyk to get ready. If it gets any worse, people will be driven out of the game and into other pastimes. And the pros need to take a lead to prevent that.

“We need to be more like the Japanese. On their tour they play at 100mph. No idea why but they do. Their target time for a three-ball on the last day of a tournament is four hours and three minutes. On the PGA and European Tours they can’t get within an hour of that.”

Still, while Chandler speaks much truth on this perennially vexatious subject, the authorities seem unable or unwilling to do anything about it.

Yes, the R&A gets all big and tough when dealing with competitors in the Boys and Amateur Championships – both of which have recently seen players penalised for tardiness. But they are less inclined to do likewise when confronted with a more famous face and name. Asked whether those teeing up at Muirfield in July will be forced (as the Boys and Amateurs are) to read the local rules on slow play, R&A Championship Committee chairman Jim McArthur could only reply that he “assumes” the likes of Tiger, Ernie, Phil and Rory will do so. Big assumption.

Then there is the one-shot slow-play penalty meted out to 14-year-old Guan Tianlang at the Masters. Would, ask even the mildly cynical, the same have happened to a leading professional? The answer, yet again, is surely in the negative, if only because the pros know how to beat the system.

Here’s how it works. Whenever a player goes “on the clock”, he actually starts to walk slower than before. The difference is that his caddie walks much faster so that he gets to the ball way ahead of his employer. By the time the player arrives – triggering the point where the watching referee starts his stopwatch – the yardage has been worked out and all other relevant information gathered. So, although the player is actually moving slower than before, he appears to be playing quicker.

All of the above is no secret to the officials, yet nothing is done about it.

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“I know Guan is slow and I know he was warned,” chimes in Chandler. “But you’re not telling me he was slower than many of the professionals. I hate it when the rules guys pick soft targets. They should be going after the real culprits. A round of golf is taking at least an hour more than it should.”

So there you have it folks. We’re stuck with what we have in so many frustrating areas of the game. At least we are until someone gets brave enough and big enough to take a positive lead. Chandler, however, is not optimistic.

“There is no solution,” he sighs. “What we already have is too entrenched. There’s not enough to gain for them to get together. Look at the PGA Tour. Why would it – with billions of dollars in turnover – be concerned about falling in line with a smaller tour? They are all commercial bodies. So there is no incentive to do anything. The dream of benevolent dictatorship is just that.”

So depressing. I need to lie down.