Faster Play Needs Slower Greens

Brendan Mcdaid

slow_play_1Speed of play on a golf course has become a more concerning issues in the game today with rounds edging towards six hours on some occasions. This issue impacts us all and this week the European Tour addressed the problem with an innovative idea of six-hole golf. With chief executive Keith Pelley insisting golf must embrace new formats and so he plans new events as early as next year. Pelley, who succeeded George O’Grady last year, has been keen to modernise the game and has already permitted players to wear shorts in pro-ams and introduced measures aimed at tackling slow play.

“Golf and tennis has to be a little more open to letting the youth actually participate,” Pelley told BBC Radio 5Live recently. “There’s no question that is something we believe in as well.
“You look at some of the new formats that have been created — when you look at adventure golf, or the brand Top Golf, and there’s one 15 minutes from where I live in Virginia Water. It’s really geared towards millennials, so the way that people are participating in the game is completely different.

“So you have to change, people’s time is so precious that golf — I think every golf course being built needs to be six holes, six holes, six holes — so that people can go at the beginning before they go to work.”

Pelley highlighted the success of Twenty20 cricket in boosting attendances as a reason for change.

“If you’re not prepared to change, if you’re not prepared to be innovative, if you’re not prepared to take chances, then I do believe that the sports that aren’t will fall behind.

At the same time Pelley has guaranteed that 72 hole tournaments will remain with tweaks and twists no doubt being introduced to refresh the format. Not unlike Rugby Union where there is a 15-man format game and also a Sevens game. Cricket exists with First Class, Limited Overs and the Twenty20 options. Football has Futsal as a variation to the 11 men game also. In that sense – and faced with a decline in viewership – golf has been slow off the mark and with declining participation needs to address some changes. And so rapidly.

Obviously the arrival of that youthful Tiger Woods boosted the sport and expanded it outside the natural population base and attracting a new following. Hence his absence has impacted those viewing figures more recently and those audiences that came into the sport because of his major achievements. For their part the Royal and Ancient has not stood still and switched their broadcasting rights in the UK from the familiarity of the BBC to the innovative approach of Sky Sports. In the first year this change has yet to have an impact as peak television audience for the final round at Royal Troon last week was just 1.1 million – across both Sky Sports 1 and Sky Sports 4. Representing a 75 per cent decline on 2015. Last year’s conclusion to The Open enjoyed a peak viewing figure of 4.7 million on the BBC Sport taking place on a Monday. With Rory McIlroy’s triumph at Royal Liverpool in 2014 the BBC reached peak figures of 5.5 million.

Surprisingly this year’s shootout between Henrik Stenson and Phil Mickelson delivered poor statistics. Even the BBC’s two-hour highlights show on Sunday evening reaching a higher peak of 1.5m. The R&A maintain though that moving The Open to a paid broadcaster will bring in that younger audience. But only time will tell I suppose.

For the amateur game the main problem of any similarity to the professional game is the speed of the game. Or should we say the lack of it with rounds taking longer and longer at many clubs around the country. Apart from lengthening the gap between tee off times the real issue in my view is the speed of the greens. Amateurs do not really need lighting fast greens as all it does is promote three putting on an industrial scale. Which in a friendly or indeed competitive four ball, adds more delays and unneeded time spent on the greens for each group. For the professional game it is a different story obviously.

Also the ritual of set up and shot taking is now akin to watching rugby kickers prepare for a conversion of penalty kicks. The rituals getting longer, set ups more accentuated and close to resembling nervous twitches. Similarly, the set-up of younger golf professionals on Tour have a similar affliction with aspiring young golfers mimicking those habits at home. Adding unneeded time wasting with every stroke. That is not say speed is of the essence. However, most games at the local club are not risking mortgage payments. Or part of a match that could earn a Tour Card. So I would maintain they should be played more naturally. But whatever the future holds for the game I love so much it now faces some challenges. Regardless I have always believed it is a simple game, and my teaching methods reflect that philosophy.

In my view the search for performance for my students is in more practical routines. Rather than rituals or gimmicks that can perhaps deliver muscle memory another way. For me the feel comes with routines that ensure good striking and can be repeated every time you return to the course; drive off the tee box or on the putting green. Too often golf tuition is made over complex or indeed even intimidating at times. Seeing what a professional might do in competition on TV should test the imagination for any amateur faced with tough options in a monthly medal. But not become a format to playing golf from day one.

So I welcome these new six hole events if they are a means of refreshing golf’s appeal to younger audiences. We need more Tiger’s and Rory’s for the future.

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