Unbeknown to the golfers out enjoying a hit on the Old Course on a decent November day, their favourite pastime is being put under the microscope in St Andrews this week in a bid to improve pace of play at clubs who are fighting a drop in participation levels.
A two-day conference organised by the R&A, “Time for Golf” is bringing together representatives of national affiliated bodies with figures from some of the key organisations involved in administering the sport to discuss factors such as the golf course, management and player behaviour.
It follows on from the results of an extensive pace of play survey conducted by the R&A between September 2014 and March 2015 that attracted more than 56,000 responses from 127 countries and showed 60 per cent saying they’d enjoy golf more if it took less time.
“Anything that we can do to create some energy, some headlines and some coverage of it (pace of play) is good,” said Martin Slumbers, the R&A’s new chief executive, of the first such conference since 2003. “The game has been getting slower for the last 20 years or so and it is correlated with participation. I think a lot of people hoped that self regulation would work and that people would sort of correct themselves. But it is now one of the top two or three issues within the game, and I think it’s important we have a campaign over a number of years. This is not going to happen overnight as there is clearly no silver bullet, but there are lots of things we can do.”
The way golf courses are set up, for instance, with Stuart McColm, the course manager at Castle Stuart, outlining why he believes the Scottish Open venue can be a template in that respect. “At Castle Stuart, we set up a course that can challenge the best players, but also look after the everyday player,” he said of the Highlands layout that is generous from the tee but demands accuracy and skill, nonetheless, and has Phil Mickelson as one of its biggest fans.
McColm, who has spent nearly 30 years in the golf industry, said courses shouldn’t have carries, as they aren’t a problem for good players but create an unnecessary “fear factor” for average players. “We shouldn’t be pounding on people hitting bad shots,” he said. “A good course architect thinks how to keep you in the game rather than walking with a golf ball in your pocket.”
One of the game’s up-and-coming course designers, South African Paul Jansen entitled his talk as “Hollywood golf” due to so many new layouts being “excessive, all about appearance and lacking in content”. He highlighted how pace of play was affected by club golfers often “ping ponging from one bunker to another” and insisted: “Less is more.” Picking up on that, his fellow course architect, Martin Ebert, revealed that he’d been commissioned to take out 40 bunkers at Royal Lytham at the same time as four new ones were being added at the Open Championship venue. “The course is proving too difficult for the members and also the maintenance cost with revetting is enormous,” he said. “We think this will help the everyday players, but also maintain the challenge for the best players.”
Delegates heard that the “Tee it Forward” initiative in the United States, where club golfers are being encouraged to play from tees best suited to their abilities, could help with pace of play. “I’ve just moved up a set of tees and I can’t believe how much more fun I’m getting as I’m hitting greens again,” said the USGA’s greens guru, Jim Moore.
Looking at the issue from a management perspective, Christopher Spencer talked about how the employment of two course rangers had helped North Berwick Golf Club make an impact in keeping round times reasonable while Lucius Riccio, a senior lecturer at Columbus University, suggested clubs should be looking at adding a “pace of play chairman” to committees due to the importance of keeping on top of tee times and how long it should take to play each hole.
What about the R&A appointing a pace of play ambassador, the likes of Andy Sullivan, for, example? “I’m not sure we would go to an ambassador, but I think the more we can get a dialogue with the professional players – Andy Sullivan is a good example, while Rory is also very quick – and opening the channels of discussion on this subject the better,” said Slumbers.