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Silhouette of golfer Guan Tianlang (Charlie Riedel/The Associated Press)
Silhouette of golfer Guan Tianlang (Charlie Riedel/The Associated Press)

Rubenstein: Taking pace of play seriously Add to ...

Tianlang Guan’s appearance in the Zurich Classic of New Orleans this week is sure to focus attention on his pace of play. The 14-year-old, having been penalized one shot for slow play during the second round of the Masters, is also sure to pay more attention to how much time he takes to play a shot.

It’s not a bad thing that there’s so much interest in pace of play just now. Slow play has been identified as a problem in the game for many years, but the penalty that was assessed Guan, and that nearly caused him to miss the cut at the Masters–he made it by a shot–should probably make all golfers think about their pace of play. And if the emphasis on pace of play encourages clubs to really and truly do something about it, then all the better.

Traveling around in the game, I’ve occasionally come across clubs that are taking pace of play seriously. The PGA Village in Port St. Lucie, Fla. includes three courses, and its staff has been working overtime to help players play faster. The public facility’s policy was evident when I played there last winter. Chris Donahue has been with PGA golf properties for 14 years. He’s the head professional at PGA Village. He told me that the pace of play policy, which the club started last fall, has been paying dividends: more rounds for the club, and more satisfied customers–especially given today’s time-constrained society.

The club started in a simple way, with announcements on the first tee that asked golfers to be mindful of their pace of play. The idea is brilliant in its simplicity. The starter on duty must speak both forcefully and with understanding, subtle combination not easily achieved.

Rounds were typically taking 4:45 to five hours when the word went out to players on the first tee. The hope was that this would get down to four hours. Donahue and his staff felt that golfers actually do want to play in four hours.

“We just made people more aware,” Donahue said. “It was a matter of getting the word out.”

There was more to the new policy than the starter’s first tee words of encouragement and motivation. The club’s GPS devices on each cart enable the staff to inform players if they were out of position. PGA Village has a big GPS screen in the office. It acts as a course traffic controller.

“We back up what we see with a visit from the marshals,” Donahue said. “There’s one marshal on each course, and he can only be in one spot at a time.”

The information from the central GPS screen allows staff to relay to marshals where the play is slow. They follow up with their kind but firm visits to the slow group or groups.

“We’ve had a couple of off days where we’re still at 4:45,” Donahue said. “But players and staff now expect play to be around four hours, maybe 4:10.”

During tournaments, the club’s staff isn’t afraid to impose a one-shot penalty to offending players. The penalty was in force during the club’s recent Member-Member tournament.

“The first time, there’s a warning,” Donahue said. “The second time, I’ll come out, or somebody from the pro staff will come out. The penalty is imposed the third time. We never got to the penalty. If we do, the entire foursome is assessed the shot.”

At the same time, the club has been trying to encourage golfers to use tees commensurate with their abilities. Donahue mentioned that a Canadian group of golfers who hadn’t played all winter visited recently. They went directly to the back tees. Staff members have been fighting the good fight in trying to get players to tee it forward, to use the name of a program now widely in use–although many golfers who should be teeing it forward refuse to do so. Their egos get in the way.

Guan, meanwhile, has obviously been made well aware of his pace of play. He was asked in New Orleans about the effect of the penalty he was assessed at the Masters. Has he thought much about it, and about slow play?

“Yeah, I just think my routine is not too bad,” the impressive young man replied. “Probably have to make a decision quicker on windy days. So, yeah, I’ll pay attention a little bit to it and probably speed up a little bit.”

Guan will pay attention to his pace of play. Excellent. If we all did the same, we could get home faster to check our Twitter feeds.

RELATED LINK: More blogs from Lorne Rubenstein

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Lorne Rubenstein has written a golf column for The Globe and Mail since 1980. He has played golf since the early 1960s and was the Royal Canadian Golf Association’s first curator of its museum and library at the Glen Abbey Golf Club in Oakville, Ontario and the first editor of Score, Canada’s Golf Magazine, where he continues to write a column and features. He has won four first-place awards from the Golf Writers Association of America, one National Magazine Award in Canada, and he won the award for the best feature in 2009 from the Golf Journalists Association of Canada. Lorne has written 12 books, including Mike Weir: The Road to the Masters (2003); A Disorderly Compendium of Golf, with Jeff Neuman (2006); This Round’s on Me (2009); and the latest Moe & Me: Encounters with Moe Norman, Golf’s Mysterious Genius (2012). He is a member of the Ontario Golf Hall of Fame and the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame. Lorne can be reached at rube@sympatico.ca . You can now follow him on Twitter @lornerubenstein

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