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Don’t single out players: Slow play a bigger problem

The flaming hot takes poured in as Sunday’s final round crawled to a finish. It’s both the convenience and curse of social media that opinions, however uneducated, can now be delivered by the flick of a thumb.

To be clear, the pace of play on Sunday at the Memorial was glacial, particularly the measured approaches of Patrick Cantlay and J.B. Holmes. Neither player would be considered fast, even by PGA Tour standards, and their position among the leaders at Muirfield Village only exaggerated this truth.

“I really think they moved up tee times today [because] they weren’t sure that the final group could finish before dark ... without any delays. Wow! What a snail’s pace,” Steve Flesch tweeted.

Flesch would know after spending 15 seasons on Tour and countless hours on golf courses waiting for one of his playing partners to make a decision. In fact, Flesch, as a member of the player advisory council, tried for years to add some teeth to the circuit’s pace-of-play policy, which the vast majority of Tour types say doesn’t work.

He – and the other members of the PAC and policy board – failed on this front, but it wasn’t from a lack of effort.

Sunday’s pace at Jack’s Place was brutally slow. It’s not a good look for the game when you have Cantlay taking 13 looks at his target before pulling the club back. But Sunday’s issues weren’t with Cantlay or Holmes or any other single player.

What was lost in Sunday’s social media maelstrom was the fact that officials sent the field out in threesomes off the first and 10th tees in an attempt to avoid an expected storm. Even with just 73 players in the field, that math just doesn’t add up to a 3 ½-hour round.

Even the Tour’s own statistics prove this point. The circuit average for a player to hit a shot is 38 seconds, although that number varies for specific shots (42 seconds to hit a tee shot, 32 seconds for a putt). Based on that information and on Sunday’s scoring average at the Memorial (71.2), the total amount of time in which a player is actually executing shots during a round is about 45 minutes.

The final groups played in about five hours on Sunday - so what was going on the other four hours and 15 minutes?

Officials will explain much of this hold up is the byproduct of math. On Sunday, there were 25 groups on the course at one time. Even with 10-minute intervals between groups, that’s going to lead to eventual congestion by the time each wave clears their opening nine holes.

Put another way: If Tour players spend roughly 45 minutes preparing and executing actual shots, the rest of that time is waiting and walking.

As much push back as Holmes received on Sunday when he was paired with Tiger Woods, it’s worth noting that Woods’ group waited on the fifth tee, in the fifth fairway, on the eighth tee ... you get the picture.

Holmes is not a fast player (see the final round at this year’s Farmers Insurance Open to prove that point), but it wasn’t his play that led to a 5 ½-hour round. This is a broader problem the Tour is unable or unwilling to address, depending on who you ask.

The only way to quicken the pace is with penalty shots, not warnings or fines, and it’s clear the circuit doesn’t have the stomach for that, at least not on a regular basis. Consider that the team of Miguel Angel Carballo and Brian Campbell at last year’s Zurich Classic were the first players issued a stroke penalty in 22 years.

According to various sources, members of the PAC and policy board regularly suggest changing the rules to make penalty shots a more likely option, and these suggestions are regularly dismissed.

The Tour could also move to a more transparent policy when it comes to pace of play, publishing, for example, a list of the 10 slowest players each week. Public shame is a profound motivator, but that also seems to be the type of Draconian approach the circuit would rather avoid.

The alternative to any meaningful changes to the pace-of-play policy is more of the same, which will lead to more slow rounds, particularly on Thursday and Friday when groups are going off both the first and 10th tees in threesomes – and if last week’s reaction was any indication, even more indignation on social media.

Slow play is a problem on Tour, but when it comes to rounds like Sunday at the Memorial this is not an individual issue; it’s a collective problem with no easy answer.