LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Frustrating bottlenecks on certain holes; having to wait constantly on slow groups playing ahead; rounds of golf that can take a total of five hours or more.
Amateurs around the world can certainly identify with these problems as the prospect of a tortuous pace of play has turned more and more golfers away from the game in recent years.
Many factors are impacting golf’s health, from lower participation and course closures to environmental demands for reduced water use, and the United States Golf Association has targeted pace of play as one of three barriers to participation.
“Considerable industry research points to the cost of the game, the time it takes to play and a general feeling of whether or not golf is welcoming and accessible,” Rand Jerris, the USGA’s senior managing director for public services, told Reuters.
“Those three factors have to be given fairly equal consideration when we talk about some of the challenges that golf needs to resolve if it is going to thrive and grow in the future.
“There is also a distinction between slow play and pace of play and we are very deliberate in the language that we use to talk about the issues. We focus on improving pace of play, or improving flow on the golf course.”
In February 2013, the USGA launched a multi-faceted program in partnership with golf industry leaders, allied organizations, media partners and golf course managers in a bid to resolve the game’s growing pace of play problem.
“What we have come to learn after studying this pretty intently is that there are five areas that we need to focus on in the industry when you consider the issue in order to improve the quality of the experience,” said Jerris.
“It starts with the design of the golf course; the way the golf course is set up and managed; the very important role that is played by the management of the first tee and starting times; player management; and then player behavior.”
For Jerris, the overarching goal is to improve the flow of play, rather than focus on the amount of time it takes for rounds to be played.
“A lot of golfers have the experience that you can go out one day and play in four hours but if you are waiting on every shot on the group in front of you, that’s actually a very frustrating experience,” he said.
“You then go play the next day and it may take you four-and-a-half hours but you may not wait on a single shot and you have a fabulous experience. The issue is not the length of time, it’s about the experience that we have out there.”
Asked if USGA research had identified any improvement in pace of play at recreational level over the past three years in the United States, Jerris replied: “We have seen an incremental decrease on the order of five to 10 minutes.
“That’s good news. When we started this program, pace of play was listed as a higher pain point than cost and last year we actually saw that flip for the first time. Golfers are now more concerned about cost than they are pace of play.
“But by no means is anyone declaring victory yet. What we are striving for is continuous improvement in pace of play by promoting the best practices over a long period of time, then we will really be able to improve the situation.”
As part of a scientific approach to the problem, the USGA is developing a high-tech flagstick tool which will help golf course operators limit bottlenecks by tweaking hole locations, the routing of players and even green speeds to improve flow.
“For example, you can study the impact of hole locations on completion times on a particular hole,” said Jerris. “If the hole is back right versus front left, there could be a significant difference in the amount of time it takes for groups of players to move through the hole.”
When it comes to participation levels in the United States, Jerris is encouraged by “some positive numbers” that emerged last year.
“Rounds of golf played were up in 2015 over 2014,” he said. “Even though we saw that decline from 30 million to 25 million in participation over the last 10 years, that has leveled off and the latest industry data shows there is a slight uptick.
“There are some promising signs. Certainly the improving economy has helped, and I really want to believe that some of these industry efforts to address issues about pace of play and to help control costs of the game are starting to pay off.”
Editing by Frank Pingue