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Pace of Play on R&A's Radar for Open Championship

ST. ANDREWS, Scotland—What with the double greens and the shared fairways, the Old Course, St Andrews, is always going to be difficult to police when it comes to pace of play. The R&A will go with their usual “time par” of four-and-a-half hours for each of the first two rounds at this year’s Open whilst accepting that it will pose something of a challenge.

At last week’s Open championship media day, Peter Dawson, the CEO of the R&A, said they would be making good use of the “call-up” procedure. For those not familiar with the arrangement, players will be asked to stand aside before putting out at certain holes. That way, the group behind can hit to the green and be in place to putt as soon as the first party have switched to the next hole.  “It’s one very good way of clearing a bottle-neck,” said Dawson.

The CEO further noted that they will be doing everything they can to encourage competitors to play down the right-hand side of the fairway at the 480 yards fourth. They will move the markers to the very back of the tee, widen the fairway to the tune of a couple of yards on the starboard side – and opt for pin positions which similarly encourage the players to come in from that flank. The longer hitters may still risk the carry to the 15th fairway but, as far as Dawson is concerned, the fewer people they have tangling with groups playing the other way the better.

It all makes sense, especially when the newly-lengthened 17th may take more time than ever.  Dawson reiterated last week that the reason the R&A have put the tee back 45 yards – he accepts that there is a lot of controversy surrounding the alteration – is with a view to re-introducing the old fear factor, which used to be attach to the Road Hole Bunker and the road behind the green. That fear factor, he noted, had all but disappeared since players had started using 7- and even 8-irons for their seconds.

Yet the dramas of old took time. You don’t, for instance, do as Tommy Nakajima did in 1978 and run up a nine via the Road Hole Bunker in a hurry – especially in an era when the psychologists exhort you to take deep breaths between sand shots. Again, you don’t end up on the road, as Tom Watson did in 1984, without needing time to consider your options.

The new tee in itself could be responsible for some lost minutes. Though the R&A are going to cut back the rough on the left to offer players a proper alternative to the line hard up against the Old Course Hotel, the caddies suspect that a strong crosswind will prompt the professionals to take aim on the second fairway. Where, of course, they could slow down those groups whose rounds are only just under way.

It was in 2003 that St Andrews hosted a Pace of Play symposium in the Old Course Hotel at which David Pepper, then the chairman of the Championship Committee, named Bobby Locke, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus as three of the guilty parties who had introduced slow play to the golfing world.

Pepper spoke of how Locke, who would peer into the hole as one who had spotted a rare species of frog at the bottom, was responsible for the first of the three-hour rounds.  Palmer, he said, had added endless minutes to proceedings through replacing his glove before every shot. Before too long, his entire army had adopted the same ritual.

As for Nicklaus, he had introduced the business of pacing out his shots instead of being content to see them in his mind’s eye.

There have been plenty of notoriously slow days in professional events at St Andrews, with five-and-a-half and even six-hour rounds having been recorded. Yet, on a daily basis, the St Andrews Links Trust preside over rounds which nowadays average out at no more than four hours and 12 minutes.

Alan McGregor, the Trust’s CEO, explained how, in 2000, “Course Rangers” became “Players’ Assistants.” Under their new guise, they were asked to put more of an emphasis on “jollying the players along” instead of admonishing them and, straightaway, people started to see them as friends rather than foes.

These officials will often walk with an offending group for a hole and that will usually do the trick.

For those occasions when the trouble recurs, the Trust have a procedure up their sleeves which, says McGregor, has only rarely had to be invoked in the 30 years he has been in his position. “If,” he said, “someone really is ruining it for the rest, we will suggest that that he would be better off playing on the Strathtyrum Course and take him over there.”  Hardly a ploy the R&A can adopt with a Bernhard Langer or some other slow-moving citizen this summer.

So what would McGregor’s message be to the players teeing up in this 150th anniversary Open?

“I would like to point to the responsibilities they owe to the whole game,” he said. “Six-hour rounds send out a terrible message and can only put people off playing.

“The worst thing,” he continued, picking on his pet hate, “is this marking of a six-inch putt. Why, oh why, can’t they knock it straight in?”


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