GRANITEVILLE — If the juniors competing at Sage Valley this weekend leave with only one lasting memory of the Junior Invitational, please let it be Russell Henley’s example of being a decisive and not deliberate golfer.
Henley spoke to the 54-man field for 45 minutes Friday night, and the PGA Tour rookie from Macon, Ga., touched on his own experience of not being bogged down by technique and sports psychology.
Too few golfers these days, however, are like Henley, and they are dragging the game down with them.
“I think slow play is the scourge of the game,” said Dr. John Reynolds, a longtime executive with both the Georgia and United States golf associations. “The scourge of the game. It will wreck it because it becomes a social problem.”
Reynolds tried his best to “crack the whip” on the young men to play quickly before Saturday’s round, letting them know that it was in their best interests to beat the potential weather expected later in the day.
But the larger point is that playing golf faster is in everybody’s best interests all the time. But you wouldn’t know it watching the juniors emulating collegiate and professional golfers with five-plus hour rounds that have become the “new normal.”
“It’s important how the junior players are brought along,” said Reynolds, 72, who was a practicing neurosurgeon in Augusta before getting into the golf industry. “They’re taught to be so precise, but we’re not talking about surgery out there. Their approach to problem solving is so complicated that they dillydally with their checklist. Everything is only excellence and precision. By the time they’re 17, every step takes so much time and they’re led to believe they can mechanically influence everything and be perfect every time.”
Reynolds believes that swing coaches and sports psychologists are trying to train the emotion and reflex out of the game with excessive pre-shot routines, and that’s not something that is conducive to sports. He calls it the “misconception of perfection.”
Basketball players can be more precise if they have time to meticulously set their feet and hands before every shot (see free throw percentages), but they don’t have that luxury in a game environment. Without a clock in golf, golfers are taking too much advantage and taking the sport out of the process and subsequently the fun out of the sport.
“It’s an emotional game,” Reynolds said. “And emotions drive muscular movements. Golf is not a game of perfect, as that book (by sports psychologist Bob Rotella) says. He was dead right.”
Excessive routine is what plagued 14-year-old Tianlang Guan at the Masters Tournament and led to his groundbreaking slow-play penalty in Friday’s second round. Guan had a intricate checklist on every shot that Ben Crenshaw’s veteran caddie Carl Jackson said “has to be fixed” because it violated the 40-second limit every time.
“He was so meticulous about sticking to it,” said Reynolds of Guan.
Carl Yuan, a 16-year-old from China, has played in junior events with Guan. Yuan offered this when asked about Guan’s performance at the Masters.
“To tell the truth, he does play slow,” Yuan said.
It’s the way Guan was taught to play. Yuan said that Guan has followed a structured regimen of daily practice sessions up to 10 hours since he started learning the game at age 3.
“He was trained for this kind of stuff,” Yuan said.
Unlike Guan, Yuan came to America to play American Junior Golf Association events where the emphasis is now on teaching young golfers to play fast. The AJGA is trying to establish a time par of 4:19, with very structured policies and penalties in place. Groups are issued green and red cards at specific check points on the course based on pace.
And a strict policy of “ready golf” is enforced. The first player to putt out must immediately go to the next tee. The second player is responsible for replacing the flag after the third putts out. Once the pin is replaced, the first player already on the next tee must tee off regardless of his score on the previous hole. Honors takes a back seat to pace, and the couple minutes that process saves on every hole adds up to more than a half hour over the course of a round.
“They’re trying to get the players new habits,” Yuan said. “I think if (Guan) had played on the AJGA, he’d have gotten faster.”
Carson Young, who will play for Clemson next season, believes some of those habits will carry with him to the next level where play typically slows down without the rigid structure.
“Just walk faster down the fairway and don’t tinker over shots,” Young said.
But like most of his peers, Young doesn’t think the five-hour rounds at Sage Valley that are typical of tournament golf these days are too bad.
“Once it gets close to six hours it gets irritating,” he said.
Try that on a course in the U.K. where stern stares or lectures are received if Americans can’t keep up with the 3.5-hour (or less) pace that is the accepted norm.
Like Reynolds said, the slow-play dirge drives everyday golfers who can’t sacrifice a full day away from their families to fit in a hobby that with warm-up and commute can equal a full workday.
“It drives me nuts,” Reynolds said. “If I play with someone slow, it’s going to ruin my day. It’s painful. It’s gotten progressively worse in my lifetime.”
It’s not always just the golfers, but the golf courses that lead to pace of play problems. The harder the course and the closer it gets pushed to the edge, the longer it takes to play.
Reynolds said the second hole at Sage Valley is a prime example of that, where players end up stacking up on the tee of the difficult 194-yard par 3 with water in front and behind. In Friday’s first round, 15 of the 54 players (28 percent) made double or worse on the second hole, including four quadruple-bogey sevens and a nine.
“You have a nice opening hole and then everybody is standing on the tee at 2,” said Reynolds of the built-in logjam.
That’s one of the reasons players in the Junior Invitational have been given a 51/2-hour time par to account for various weather conditions. The first group Friday finished in just more than 4 hours, 45 minutes, but that average time crept up over five hours as the day wore on. Saturday’s second round was more of the same despite Reynolds’ pleas to pick it up.
Beyond educating and training young golfers to be faster and more decisive players, how do you reeducate those who are already set in their slow ways and bring everyone else to a halt with them?
“It’s up to the institutions to say we’re not going to tolerate this,” Reynolds said. “You’re going to have to penalize them. It sounds like a retreating way to fix the problem, but it’s the only way. It has to be more than just an incidental occurrence.”
The USGA has made it a point of emphasis. The Masters issued a prominent shot across the bow. Perhaps if the NCAA and PGA Tour got on board the high-speed train, golf can repel its scourge.
But these kids at Sage Valley need to decide to be part of the solution and not the problem.