John Huggan: Throw the rulebook at the slowcoaches

ASK just about any tour professional to identify the most irritating on-course aspect of his potentially lucrative employment and the answer invariably and inevitably focuses on some aspect of slow play.

Its unlikely that Bernhard Langers notoriously slow play can be blamed on ignorance of the rules. Picture: Getty
Its unlikely that Bernhard Langers notoriously slow play can be blamed on ignorance of the rules. Picture: Getty

Tardiness between tee and green – and green and tee come to that – is golf’s equivalent of the weather; everyone talks about it but no one ever seems to do anything about it.

Admittedly, nailing even the most obvious members of the slow play club – the likes of Ben Crane, almost every Frenchman and the daddy of them all, Bernhard Langer – is notoriously difficult. “Slowpoke”, it seems, is also a euphemism for “slippery customer”. Those who need most time to hit their shots typically double up as golf’s more devious practitioners. All too often, these cynical so-and-sos have two pre-shot routines: a lengthy, multi-step process for when no one in authority is watching armed with a stopwatch, and another, speedier version for those shots that have attracted a referee’s attention.

They’re not all the same though.

“I don’t like playing with a slow player,” says former US Open champion Geoff Ogilvy. “But there are slow players and there are slow players. Guys like Kevin Na, who has trouble getting the club back, I can tolerate. I don’t mind that. He’s not trying to not get the club away from the ball. I get it that golf can mess with someone’s head. That’s real stress. And guys who have that problem would much rather not have it.”

Indeed, men like Na deserve sympathy more than condemnation. But still, there is more to this than just players taking too long between arriving at their balls and actually hitting the things. A deep and indefensible ignorance of golf’s most basic rules is also contributing to the often extraordinary length of time it takes highly-skilled professionals to get themselves around a course.

Last week in Abu Dhabi, the European Tour’s chief referee, John Paramor, distributed a memo to every player. The first two sentences of Paramor’s missive read as follows: “In recent weeks, there have been a number of occasions where players have not played a provisional ball when their original ball has not been found. Some of those players when asked for the reason why they had not played a provisional ball stated they were unsure that they were entitled to do so.”

This beggars belief. These players are the sporting equivalent of lollipop ladies who have neglected to read even the first page of the Green Cross Code. That’s bad enough, but their lack of knowledge of Rule 27-2 surely adds – at a conservative estimate – as much as 20 minutes to tournament rounds.

And there’s more. Further down the page, Paramor cites another example of the sort of things he and his overworked team have to deal with. During last year’s BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth, an unnamed individual pushed his approach to the 15th green way right of the putting surface. Only after walking forward did he ascertain that the ball was out of bounds.

Having done so, Player X trudged all the way back to where he hit his original shot. He then hit his next ball right of the green into a similar area. Here’s where it gets really bad though. Without either hitting a provisional ball, or walking forward as he had done previously, X simply stood and waited for news. That’s waited. And waited. And waited. What a dope. Eventually, he was penalised two shots for “undue delay of play”. All because he clearly had no idea what he was doing.

So what’s going on here?

“The current generation of young players is the first who don’t seem to have learned the game on the golf course,” points out Ogilvy, who is 37. “These days, they seem to learn golf on the range, with the Trackman machines and their coaches beside them. But that’s not golf, of course, it’s just hitting.

“All I ever did growing up was play golf. And when you do that you learn the rules as you go. Every few days, a rule comes up. Things happen. But when all you do is hit balls on the range, you never learn rules. And there’s too much of that in the modern game, certainly compared with what has gone before.”

The saddest aspect of this nonsensical situation is that we are not referring to any of the weird and wonderfully esoteric happenings that pop up only in the R&A’s “Decisions” book. Oh no. We are talking here about basic stuff, the things that crop up in almost every round. OK, it’s not quite “you can’t ground your club in a bunker”, or “no, you can’t tee-up in front of the markers”. But things such as when to play a provisional ball, or what to do from unplayable lies, water hazards and out-of-bounds are not far removed from kindergarten level.

“I’m not saying guys shouldn’t hit balls in an effort to improve,” says Ogilvy. “But there is a knock-on effect when a guy spends more time on the range than on the course. It would be interesting if part of gaining a tour card were passing a basic rules test. Maybe the only thing I can say in defence of players is that the rules on tour often vary from those everyone else plays by. Then again, we’re not really talking about such things here. It’s not asking much for us to understand and deal with situations that come up during nearly every round.

“There are what might be called ‘core’ rules, those we all have to know if the game is to be played properly. Just a working knowledge of those is going to make you safe 99.9 per cent of the time. And if something really extraordinary does happen, by all means call for a referee. Bottom line: we just need to know a few of the rules.”

Ogilvy’s points are well made. But the best of them is the suggestion that every tour player must pass a test on the half a dozen or so rules that would make a significant difference to the pace of play. Right now, almost every player on the European Tour calls for a member of Paramor’s staff whenever there is even the slightest doubt as to how they should proceed. The excuse given is always that doing so absolves the player of any blame should an error be made in the ruling. Players are not penalised for the mistakes of the officials. So they play safe, in the process removing any personal obligation to have even the remotest clue as to what they are doing.

But this has gone too far. The players are now asking for a ref every time, even when the solution to their “predicament” is blindingly obvious. Or should be. So yes, examine them on Ogilvy’s “core” rules and make the players sort out unplayable lies and the like for themselves.

And, oh yes, time them when they are doing so. Any more than two minutes should lead to an automatic one-shot penalty. The subsequent whining and squealing would be something to hear. But they would all get round quicker – because they had to. No excuses.