Golfoholics > Uncategorized > SLOW PLAY


  • Posted by: Bill Replogle

Slow Play…there is a better way


What if I told you there’s a golf club in South Florida with 1400+ members, who all consistently play 18 holes in 4 hours or less, even in club tournaments? And they do it with 9 minute tee times…

It is possible.

If you’re reading this, you probably play a lot of golf or at minimum you are passionate about the game. So you’ve dealt with the pace of play issue which is a big problem in golf.

It used to take 3 days to get a letter from NJ to California. How many emails just did the same trip and back in the time it took me to write this sentence? Everything is speeding up. Everything but golf.

Unless it’s Top Golf. You can “play” golf in an environment where you have your own Bay (course) to yourself. You can eat and drink while you play. Technology, which is just absolutely ho-hum for millennials, is the basis for the point scoring. The scores are all on a screen, not on a paper card. It’s golf for a new generation.

Compare that to the experience at today’s public golf course. You have to wait to play. There’s a good chance it’s crowded and you’ll have to wait to until the group in front clears. On. Every. Shot. That’s a big issue. It can turn a 4-hour round into 5 or 5 1/2. Today’s attention spans won’t accept that.  A lot of those players are not coming back. Too much else in the world is on-demand and immediately available.

But you don’t have to be a millennial to have a passionate dislike for slow play. Most of us play golf as an escape. But when you’re waiting to hit every shot, it’s more like a trap.

I’ve played golf for 35 years. I’ve played on munis that averaged 5:30 a round and I’ve played on public courses in New Jersey where my foursome would take turns sleeping in the car in the night before to get a tee time. Some people dream of joining a country club to get away from that experience (as if that is the panacea).  My earliest golf dreams were to buy a Winnebago someday so I could park in the in the golf course lot the afternoon before the round the next day, hang out with my buds and play cards and drink….and be first in line with a good night’s sleep. I played Pebble Beach twice and both rounds took almost 6 hours. Really. It’s not a real painful six hours, I mean you are playing Pebble…but it’s ridiculous.

It’s clear golf has a pace of play problem which is a factor in limiting the growth of the game.  Some clubs institute letters to repeat offenders, and then limit their hours of play if the problem persists. I think slow players have to either be incentivized or nudged/pushed…dare I say forced?

In my opinion the starter and on course staff are often overlooked, or ignored altogether, in their ability to impact the experience of the player. But how many of them are actually doing much while they are out there? Maybe they aren’t empowered or maybe they don’t like the negative interaction that can come with enforcing pace of play.

So where are they getting it right?

There is a club that we will refer to as “PBI”. It’s a beautiful community in Palm Beach Gardens Florida. It has historical ties to the PGA.  It has 3 excellent full championship courses that provide a great set of tests for golf for its seasonal members. It’s also a great proving ground for pace of play management practices because not only are there 1400 members, but this club has 4 member associations which have tournaments and league-type play every week. They have numerous member-member and member-guest events with large fields, sometimes across multiple courses.

The program:

First, and this may be the single most important element of how this club does the impossible: The members want it that way and gave the club Golf Operations team the mandate to manage and enforce that standard. Think about that. Do the members at your club really all want to play in 4 hours or less? Everyone complains about slow play but if they had to comply with the program I’m about to lay out for you, would they do it and be happy?  We know these PBI members are happy because they consistently rate the golf operations team and experience 98% in member satisfaction surveys.

So the mission is clear to everyone.

Next, the Director of Golf (DoG) is charged with pace of play monitoring, managing and acting to ensure compliance. He takes it seriously.  He has three things he wants his people to focus on: Service, Pace of Play and Name Recognition.  I don’t see anything in there about $$. The common denominator is it’s all about the members.

Here’s what else is in their Pace of Play toolbox:

The starter.

This position is armed with authority and starts the whole process off.  He’s got an iPad with the tee sheet that’s not only linked to the club’s reservation system but its handicap system. These starters get to know their members and often fill out the scorecards for them in advance with their updated handicaps. It’s an added service I found to be very unique. Now that may not directly speed up play, but it’s also one less thing the foursome has to manage at the first tee or in the first fairway.

At the first tee, the starter updates the iPad to reflect who is actually on the course and when they teed off. The system that the iPad is updating is monitored and updated by employees (On Course Professionals).

One key element of “ensuring compliance” in pace of play is the ability for the starter to keep the whole train running on time, all day long. If a group shows up a minute late they are politely reminded to tee off now. That’s not necessarily unique. But, if a group is even 2, 3 or 4 minutes or more behind when they arrive, they may be asked to tee off from the 150 yard marker in order to stay on time. Sometimes a starter will determine the best solution is to have the group simply drive past 1 and go to the second tee and wait for the group in front to clear. Simple. Train is on time.

They know that if they allow the continual delay of 2-3-4 minutes over 5 or 6 groups or more, the average round time will increase by 15 or 20 minutes or worse. And you can’t catch up or get that time back for most of the following groups. They don’t let the train leave the station late and they check on it constantly to make sure it doesn’t fall behind.

Next are the On-course Professionals (OCP). At your club this position may be called Ranger or Marshall. But these folks are different in how they actually interact with the starter, the members and the DoG. PBI’s on-course professionals are normally younger players themselves who are looking to get a foot in the door into the PGA professional program. They may later move into the golf shop as assistant pros as they advance through their course work and training.

They report to the DoG and are his eyes and ears as it relates to any issues that arise on the golf course. When it comes to pace of play, they provide updates through an iPad or smartphone that feeds to the starter and each other. They can track how each group is doing relative to a forecasted 4-hour pace of play. Their information updates and changes the color coded icon on everyone’s app to keep the team posted on whether a group is falling behind. Conditions of slow play are identified immediately by the OCP and everyone with system access can understand it and react to it as well.

But far from just being monitors, they react when those backups or potential slowdowns occur, very quickly.

If a group falls behind, the OCPs will share the information with the group and professionally and politely convey the message to correct their position on the course quickly. If the condition is not corrected timely, they’ll simply get the group to pick up and either move to the correct position on the course or skip a hole entirely.  And again, the pace of play function in their software tells them what hole they should be playing. If a foursome reaches the 5th hole at 11:04 and they should have been there at 11, the on course professional can tell them right then and there that they are 4 minutes behind and need to address that gap quickly.

That may sound somewhat drastic and maybe you can’t imagine the members at your club willingly do this. But it should be noted that this is not required very often and it’s even rarer that a group would find itself doing this more than once. Why? Because once you have been told to move up or skip a hole, you don’t want to go through that again. Clearly diplomacy and judgement are paramount in how an OCP or Starter handles these situations, but that’s true in just about all private course interactions between members and staff. Continual training and support from the DoG, especially in situations where maybe a more seasoned hand is needed, can make all the difference. Communication is constant using radios between all of the staff members responsible for pace of play.

What’s important is that the DoG has a clear mission and authority from the members, and he uses that to back up his staff when called upon to help with compliance…

The temps and humidity in south Florida can get up high, especially in the afternoon. It can get uncomfortable. Storms come in quickly without notice. There’s a lot of good reasons to play and get done quickly. The culture there is to play fast, period.

By comparison, some courses in the last 10 or 15 years began installing GPS monitors on their carts. As the US satellite system was opened to commercial use, many courses found this as an amenity they could offer to be helpful to players. For some it helped provide a differentiator. It was one of the earlier forms of distance measurement in what is now common in the use of rangefinders and personal GPS devices.

These GPS systems could also monitor the golf carts, send messages to individual carts to get back on the path or speed up play etc. It requires a huge investment in the devices to be installed and maintained on the golf carts as well as the manpower to monitor the play across the 18 holes. But that person was for most courses already employed in the form of the pro behind the shop counter. And if so empowered, can use the GPS system and on-cart communications to enhance pace of play. But it’s hard to interact in a polite and service oriented way through a screen when you have to tell a group they all have to pick up and move to the next tee. The “big brother” approach of that may not be well accepted.

By the way, when I play in State or USGA run events, players are on the clock like this in very much the same way. The volunteer officials who run the event will see if a group is falling behind and issue a verbal warning. Next would be a yellow or red flag placed on the next tee box indicating that the group is officially “on the clock”. You can imagine the need for this strict pace of play management in higher level tournaments because golfers by nature playing by the rules and putting everything out, with consequences on the line, can take too long if left unmonitored.

So “PBI” seems to have cracked the code. And as leading edge and focused as they seem to be in the use of the combination of technology and people to facilitate and manage golf course play….they are not standing still. They continue to tweak their program and recently deployed a “head starter” of sorts. This role provides an overall leader to the starters and a single person for the DoG to work with to ensure consistency and continual improvement in the program as it relates to the starters. He is a liaison to the on course professionals, the bag drop team, the cart management staff and most importantly the DoG.

In today’s world, when you see paper being used as a medium to track and manage information that is changing and updating in real time, like a tee sheet or data on a foursome, you have to wonder if some course operations are either unaware of better ways to do it or unwilling to change. Maybe its budget? But if you do the math, you’d probably see that efficiency in use of the tee times on the golf course translates into dollars. And we all know happy players spend more money in the club on equipment, food, merchandise. And they return more often because the experience is good and better than the place across the street. “PBI” doesn’t seem to be using more “marshals” or starters than other courses, they just use them in a smarter way. So in the end, it’s not about cost, but efficiency.

Over time the system can develop a history of a player’s average time to play. When dealing with the habitual slow player, the club has real data, not anecdotes. If Mr. Smith complains to the starter that the Jones group always plays slow or played particularly slow today, the club staff can respond right then and there to Mr Smith that the Jones played in exactly 4 hours and 12 minutes today and average 4 hours and 8 minutes. Facts and data, powerful stuff.

You might be surprised to know that they don’t have to reprimand members very often for pace of play and that the deployment of this system and technology and on course professionals provides a message as much as a tracking system. The message to members is clear: keep up with the group in front of you and enjoy your round. And that’s what happens.

Author: Bill Replogle