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Original Issue


A staggering slowdown is strangling the game of golf. In the pictures below, Jack Nicklaus uses two and a half minutes to putt out at the U.S. Open, an example of how pro golfers are taking their time. With huge sums at stake, this is understandable and hardly alarming, but recreational golfers mimic the pros. A Sports Illustrated survey shows the result: a nationwide trend that endangers the sport

There is a conspicuous sign beside the first tee on the Old Course at St. Andrews that reads: "A round of golf should NOT take more than three hours." The notice is no well-preserved memento of the Royal and Ancient past, but a modern admonition concerning a major problem of the grand old game. Golf is suffering from a case of paralysis that threatens to spoil the sport.

In the past five years the average time to play a round of golf in the U.S. has risen from less than four hours to more than five and a half. As a consequence, fewer people are able to play, those who do enjoy it less and the survival of courses that depend on heavy play for revenue has been endangered.

The evidence is everywhere. In one year, from 1964 to 1965, 10 private Chicago country clubs showed a marked decline in rounds played. Public-course golfers in Minneapolis have taken to carrying cards in their bags so they can play gin rummy while waiting on the tees. From coast to coast public-course operators report leveling their rough, cutting down trees, filling in traps, draining water hazards and generally fixing things so that the only way a golfer could lose a ball would be to swallow it—all in an effort to speed up play. More and more, private clubs are being patrolled by "rangers," polite but firm fellows whose sole function is to pass on the curt policeman's message of, "Get moving." Somehow, almost unsuspected, the problem of slow golf has reached monstrous proportions. If all this strikes the golfer as vaguely Orwellian, it should, for it is obvious that slow play is insidiously reducing golf to some kind of long-distance lawn bowling.

It was not, however, until three weeks ago at the 66th U.S. Open that national attention focused on the situation. The U.S. Golf Association, acutely aware of the damage being caused, decided to take a hard look and a harder line on slow golf. "Slow play cannot be tolerated," it told the Open field and ruled that a threesome should complete its round in four hours. USGA officials dressed in their blue blazers followed the players in golf carts, watched their progress through field glasses, compared notes by walkie-talkie, tracked slow players on foot and warned groups when they fell behind. At times it seemed like the proper answer to the question, "How'd you do?" was 3:54 instead of 71. The warning of a threesome that included Jack Nicklaus caused a furor. Nicklaus fumed on the course, then vented his wrath in the press room, saying that nobody could play an Open while being "followed by policemen with stopwatches." And Nicklaus had a point. But so did Arnold Palmer when he hustled around Olympic in 3:27, called it his most pleasurable 18 in years and shot a 66. If the intent of the USGA was to make slow play a cause cél√®bre, it had at last succeeded.

Slow play is a complex problem, for both the amateur and the pro. "The longer it takes to play," says Byron Nelson, "the fewer people can participate. As for the spectator, if he becomes bored with lack of action, that will hurt the game. I don't think a pro should be forced to play faster than the speed at which he believes he performs best, but a player can train himself not to be overly slow."

"They hate to make decisions now," says Jug McSpaden, another pro of the '30s and '40s. "They are conscious that if they make the wrong one it could cost them $100,000. Once in a tournament Gene Sarazen and I played a round in two hours and 15 minutes. I've always gone along with Gene's basic philosophy, 'Let's miss it quick!' "

Until the mid-'50s the touring pros averaged well under four hours a round—compared with 4:47 and 4:52 in the 1964 and 1965 U.S. Opens—and the few slow players on the tour stood out. The king of the crawlers was Cary Middlecoff, who could make Nicklaus look like a hare. Once during a filming of All-Star Golf the camera crews found that Middlecoff was sure to waggle his club at least 14 times over the ball. To save on-camera time, the director would wait until Cary got to waggle No. 11, then whisper, "Roll 'em." Middlecoff never knew. Later he saw the show. He watched it intently, and when it was over he announced, "Now I see what's wrong with my game. I've been playing too fast."

By the late '50s most of the pros were slowing up and tournament officials were becoming conscious of the problem. Jackie Burke recalls playing in a Masters with Ben Hogan. By then Hogan was having the frightful putting troubles that plague him still, which is an understandable—if lamentable—reason for slow play. "A Masters official," says Burke, "came up to me and said, 'Relate to Mr. Hogan that he is not playing fast enough.' I looked over at Ben, frozen over a putt, and I said, 'Relate it to Mr. Hogan yourself.' " Today Hogan still stands over putts for an eternity, but he doesn't delay play. In the era of the dawdle, how could he?

A countrywide survey by SPORTS ILLUSTRATED indicates that the slowdown by the pros has, in turn, made a morass of amateur golf. Some areas report an average of five hours for a country-club round, others say six. A weekend round on a public course may take from six to eight hours. In Kansas City, for example, it takes five and a half hours to play Southview golf course, exactly two hours more than it did 10 years ago. And then there is Fun City—New York. On a recent Sunday morning a lady checked in at the Clearview course in Queens at 6:30 a.m. At 5:30 p.m. she returned to the pro shop to ask for a refund on her golf-cart rental. She had been able to play only 14 holes. She got her money back.

Naturally, as the hours needed to complete 18 holes increased, the number of people able to get around a course in a day had to decrease. In 1956 play at Southview averaged 400 golfers a day. Now the figure is 300, but the course is still full. At Milwaukee's Greenfield course 750 golfers used to play on a Sunday. Now only 600 can tee off.

"Slow play," says Joseph C. Dey, the executive director of the USGA and the man most responsible for the well-being of U.S. golf, "is a thief of time and pleasure."

The superintendent of three public courses in one Midwest city tried to speed up his golfers, without success. "They would tell me, 'I am a taxpayer and I can take my time.' So I decided the best way to keep them moving was to eliminate the rough. I trimmed the trees high and thinned some out. Now they don't lose balls. This year I let some clover grow two inches where the rough should be, and one player gave me hell for not keeping the fairways cut."

According to a pro at a private club in Detroit, the more golfers are urged to move faster, the more they resent it "They'll challenge you," he says. "They feel they are members and they come out to relax. What I've done is to have low rough—you can get as good a lie in it as on the fairway. We also use the middle or front of the tees."

In Novi, Mich., a Detroit suburb, Midge and Julie Cova make their livelihood out of their 27-hole layout. "We get them through 18 in four hours here on Saturdays and Sundays," Midge says, "because we don't have any rough at all. That's the way to do it. I let the rough grow for a recent tournament and we lost 40% of our play. It was taking six hours to get around. I learned my lesson. I'm going to mow that rough down and burn it. I can't afford not to."

A Texas municipal pro, Erwin Hardwicke of Dallas, decided to fill in his sand traps to keep golfers moving. "We just have two little ones left beside the 18th green," he says. "Nobody complained."

The reasons for the slow-up of the weekend golfer are not the same as for the slow-up of the tour professional, but the relationship is cause and effect, with slow play by pros being the cause. Several years ago Joe Black, who was then the PGA tour supervisor, was asked why the pros were taking more and more time to play the game. "The first reason," he said, "is money. The second reason is money. And the third reason is money." Ten years ago the tour purses totaled $900,000. Now Arnold Palmer grosses only a little less than that in a year. The thought is enough to make any man pause over a putt.

Two changes in the rules also added to playing time. In 1957 the PGA began allowing pros to repair ball marks on greens and to clean the ball as many times as they liked once they reached the putting surface. Before that time the pros had to putt across greens that by the end of a day were as dimpled as a Dunlop. Only under certain conditions, a Fort Worth flood, say, or a Pensacola hurricane, were they allowed to clean their golf balls before putting. When the new rules went into effect, the pros began taking longer on the greens. "Now they worry about a grass stain on a ball," says Joe Dey, "and they mark balls to aim the trademark in a certain direction." Since the rule change, a pro will place his ball with the signature on line with the hole. By watching it after he has struck the putt, he can tell if the ball had any spin on it. After Palmer published a newspaper golf tip to this effect, one pro says, the amateurs around his club began marking on every putt and carefully aiming the brand names.

Such imitation of the pros is the fundamental cause for the slowdown in amateur golf. Lack of caddies, unknowledgeable players, more leisure time to spend on a course and the increased use of hand carts (power carts, by the way, do not speed up play) are all factors, but the big one is trying to act like a million-dollar winner. George Bayer, who runs a club near Lake Tahoe when he is not out on the tour himself, says, "The pros set a strong example in tournaments and on television. I have one member who likes to be Dow Finsterwald and another who thinks he is Gardner Dickinson. I watch an amateur walk halfway to a green and I wonder if he knows what he is seeing. Pros have their measurements and can tell yardage from landmarks, but amateurs don't. They just waste time." Other amateurs use the slow plumb-bob putting method, without knowing a plumb from Bob. Most dither over club selection because they have seen Nicklaus do it, never mind that Nicklaus is thinking of six things, five of which the amateur doesn't know.

Jerre Todd, who does public relations for the Colonial National Invitation tournament, has an easy gauge of the effect of the pros on the duffer. "After our tournament," he says, "there is a slowdown at all Fort Worth courses for about a month. Then things return to normal." That is, normally slow.

It is generally agreed that most of the time wasted on golf, both amateur and pro, is lost on the greens, and it is not just coincidental that this is the part of the game that the TV cameras stress.

Teen-age and college play has been seriously affected by the wonderful world of TV golf. Rounds in state junior events now average over five hours. Last year when 21-year-old Marty Fleckman won the national collegiate golf title, he played so slowly that he finished five holes behind the group in front of him. Last week at the Philadelphia junior tournament a notice on the first tee read: "You are not on television."

The paradox is that, amid the efforts to return golf to the pace at which it was played for decades, it still must be remembered that the game is not a foot race. Golf is fresh air and companionship and leisure, as well as competition. Repeatedly country-club pros point out that their members have more time for golf today and therefore are inclined to prolong their rounds.

Jackie Burke, who with Jimmy Demaret operates the 36-hole Champions club in Houston, deplores slow play but adds a meaningful reminder: "The pace of living is so fast today that a golf course is one of the last places to watch a squirrel climb a tree. You deprive a golfer of the sight, sound and smell of the outdoors if you send him rushing through a round. There should be socializing and companionship involved. I recall Walter Hagen's words: "You better smell some of the flowers on the way through.' "

So, in a sense, any amateur speedup has to be voluntary. Surely, this is one reason the USGA moved in on the pros—the pacesetters—at the Open.

Philip Strubing, a lawyer in Philadelphia and USGA vice-president, is the man who suggested the four-hour maximum at the Open. "Several golfers told me that our insistence on speedier play would hamper their games," Strubing said last week. "I told them that any pro who dawdles over a shot is playing right into the hands of golfers like Arnold Palmer and Billy Casper. Both of these men are fine examples of how golf should be played. They look at their shots and then swing. The first look is usually the best, and they know it."

Joe Dey points out that slow play eventually destroys concentration. "I do not believe," Dey says, "that anyone can concentrate constantly for five hours. But great golfers have to be great concentrators. Nicklaus has no idea how long he is actually taking over a putt. I remember when he was 20, playing the final hole in the World Amateur at Merion. He had a 20-foot putt, and as he stood over it the wind blew his cap off. But he kept on putting. I don't think he realized what had happened."

All pros agree that undue slowness ruins concentration, and most of them like the new putting rules that the USGA enforced at the Open: each player putts continuously until he holes out, and a ball can be lifted and cleaned only once. Rounds at Olympic averaged 57 minutes less than at Bellerive in the 1965 Open. Of course, the USGA "policemen" helped, too.

It may or may not ever be possible to get the country's 8,000 golf courses to adopt and enforce the two new rules. Meanwhile, local pros who have resisted filling in their sand traps and paving their rough are struggling with some other ingenious ideas. At one West Coast course, fivesomes (once a sacrilege, fivesomes have been found to play nearly as fast as foursomes) are encouraged, and it is suggested that the first member of the group to hole out move on to the next tee and hit his drive while the others finish putting. The honor is ignored.

At the Brown Deer course in Milwaukee a system has been tried whereby the player nearest the hole putts first. In the meantime golfers with longer putts line them up. At Washoe Country Club in Reno the pro insists on fivesomes, and even sixsomes, during peak hours, and players may not stop at the clubhouse for refreshments during a round.

But perhaps the simplest step is the one taken by the Michigan PGA, which has decreed that all rounds in its tournaments must be completed in less than four hours. Last Thursday, faced with two-stroke penalties, 86 pros in a Michigan tournament finished in an average of three hours and a half.

It has to be hoped that the weekend golfers will now mimic that. Three and a half hours is still slow, of course, by St. Andrews' standards. But you've got to have time to smell the flowers.