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Slow Play - Bane of Golf or Fact of Life?

By: Marino Parascenzo


These were some of the offerings of global impact on a recent check of Al Jezeera:

The myth of the 1,400-year Sunni-Shia war.

What the Abbottabad report means for Pakistan.

Singapore punishes 20 banks in rate review.

Neoliberalism and public unrest.

U.S. Golf Association speeds up on slow play.

Well, it seems that those guys doing Figure-8s in their carts in front of us last week, moseying up the fairway while we had to bite our tongues back on the tee, have lifted slow play in golf into the mainstream of geopolitics. Think of it: The famed Arab news giant interrupts its coverage of the hottest stories in the world to bring you the latest in the war on slow play. And it wasn't a slow news day. It never is on Al Jezeera.

Consider that in coffee shops throughout the Middle East, patrons will talk over many things, but slow play isn't likely to be one of them. And the people who do play golf there go the palaces and spires of Dubai, and they are the kind of people who order from above the top shelf and who are always welcome to play golf as fast as they please.

It was during the U.S. Open a few weeks ago that the USGA announced its latest campaign against slow play, considered to be a hostile and malignant force that's ruining the game. The campaign is based on a theme of "While We're Young," a line out of the farce movie, "Caddyshack," but which sounds like something Barbra Streisand ought to be singing. It was a story on the announcement of this campaign that made it to Al Jezeera.

Slow play in golf is like cholesterol in the blood stream. That's what the hullabaloo is all about. Golf courses get clogged, normal players get furious and quit, play falls off, income declines, etc.

This USGA campaign is pleasant and inoffensive, not authoritative. It's like a little poke in the ribs and a wink, saying, "Aw, c'mon, folks. You can do it - you can play a little faster." Not a heavy message, but warm encouragement.

But it won't come to anything. As long as it's people who are playing there will be slow play.

It's a nice try, but it should be noted that the USGA made a better try once before, then canceled it. It was a real statement, with teeth. It came in the 1978 U.S. Open at Cherry Hills. It was the first real effort by the USGA or anyone else to combat slow play.

The USGA had proclaimed to all before the start of that championship that slow play would be penalized. And sure enough, they found themselves someone to make an example of. The timing was excellent - in the very first round. Bob Impaglia, 25, a little-known pro, who had trouble finding his line out of the rough at the ninth hole, took four minutes to hit his second shot, and so was knocked off for two shots.

He was 1-over on the front nine. But, shaken by the event, Impaglia went 11-over on the back. It was such a historic moment - he was the first player in the 78 years of the U.S. Open to get penalized for slow play - the condemned man was brought to the press tent for a public interview. Impaglia brought his sense of humor with him. "I dreamed about a trip to the press tent," he said. "Well, I got my ride to the press tent, all right."

Well, the die had been cast, the gauntlet hurled down. The USGA was really at war with slow play. But this war ended three years later at the 1981 U.S. Open at Merion, ironically enough. John Schroeder, PGA Tour pro famed for his dallying, was timed and found wanting by P.J. Boatwright, the highly respected USGA official who nailed Impaglia in 1978.

Schroeder objected and pleaded his case to higher USGA officials. They rescinded the penalty. With that, it was tough to take the USGA seriously about slow play. They had just pulled the rug out from under their own man.

The cries against slow play have gone on more or less fitfully over the years. The PGA Tour has addressed the problem with an elaborate system that ends up in fines, not penalty strokes. The belief seems to be that a fine of a thousand dollars or so will get their attention. Penalties, on the other hand, would be ineffective, even though they might drop a guy several spots on the final scoring list and cost him maybe a hundred thousand dollars or so. Or, he could miss the cut.

(In a celebrated case at Augusta National last April, it was the Masters - not the Tour - that penalized the 14-year-old Chinese kid, Guan Tianlang.)

It's generally agreed that if the pros play faster, then regular folk would follow their example. The various tours have rejected this notion, except the LPGA Tour that, by comparison, has been a crusader. The LPGA has handed out at least eight slow-play penalties over the previous two years, most notably to Morgan Pressel, a young star, and it helped knock her out of the 2012 Sybase Match Play.

As far as is known, Ben Crane, the prince of slow play on the PGA Tour, has never been penalized. He's so slow there should have been a use-by date on his swing. "Do you think I want to be this way?" Crane asked whimsically in his mea-cupla video.

Like, what was keeping him? Crane was so frustrating in the 2005 Booz Allen Classic that Rory Sabbatini, the feisty South African, finally gave up, putted out ahead of him on the 17th and rushed to the 18th tee, back, thereby making himself the villain and Crane the victim. Maybe Crane has improved. Even so, the Tour itself does not take on the load of role model.

On the other side of the coin, maybe slow play isn't a capital offense. Take the guys slogging their way up the fairway in front of you. Do they not really give a damn? Or are they merely trying to enjoy their round? They've worked all day, shuffling papers or getting dirty and sweaty. The boss has been all over them; always the deadlines and tensions.

The golf course is a refuge. Stop and smell the flowers. "The Haig" himself prescribed it. And if golf is a good walk spoiled, it's spoiled even more by nagging. You paid your money. Do you have to be harassed on the golf course, too?

On the other hand, the other golfers have paid their money, too. Do they have to stand around waiting all day?

Is King Solomon busy?

This new USGA campaign doesn't focus on the player. It spreads the blame around.

First, there are the slow players. Maddening. Not ready when it's their turn. Reading putts from all angles, wondering what it is the pros see when they do this. And hunting for the ball. They're not good enough to hit the fairway every time. And anyone check the price of golf balls lately?

Next is course design. The architects are building tough courses. Ease up. Right. Golfers will always flock to play an easy course, like people don't ride scary rollercoasters.

Then there's course setup. The rough is too high, the greens are too fast. Make the course play easier. Right again. Golfers don't want to talk about the beast they played. You don't want to play Oakmont. You want to play Cupcake Hills.

And finally there's, player/group management. Whatever that means.

Periodically, the alarm is raised against slow play. It's almost a fad. It comes and goes, like the tide. The result, alas, is predictable. Nothing much will come of it. Slow players will continue to play slowly, no matter the coaxing and threats. The faster players will continue to fester, but they will endure and play on. Some may give up the game, but not many. Not just because of slow play.

The USGA is trying again. They're the good and admirable shepherds of the game. They should keep a stiff upper lip.

Marino Parascenzo can assure you that hanging around with great and famous pro golfers does nothing to help your game. They just won't give you the secret. But it makes for a dandy career. As a sportswriter with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (now retired), Parascenzo covered the whole gamut of sports - Steelers, Pirates, Penguins, Pitt, Penn State and others - but golf was his favorite. As the beat writer for the paper, he covered all the stateside majors and numerous other pro events, and as a freelancer handled reporting duties for the British Open and other tournaments overseas - in Britain, Spain, Italy, the Caribbean, South Africa, China and Malayasia. Marino has won more than 20 national golf-writing awards, along with state and regional honors. He has received the Memorial Tournament's Golf Journalism Award and the PGA of America's Lifetime Achievement Award in Journalism. His writing has appeared in numerous magazines, among them Sports Illustrated, Golf Digest and Golf Magazine, and in anthologies and foreign publications. He also wrote the history of Oakmont Country Club. Parascenzo is a former president of the Golf Writers Association of America and is on its board of directors. He is the founder and chairman of the GWAA's Journalism Scholarship Program. He is a graduate of Penn State and was an adjunct instructor in journalism at Pitt.