Originally created 10/17/01

Slow play, split tees

Even the folks in blue blazers are waving a white flag.

The U.S. Golf Association, whose mission is to promote and conserve the best interests of the game, felt it had little choice when it decided to end 101 years of tradition and start the first two rounds of the U.S. Open next year from split tees.

Half of the 156-man field at Bethpage State Park in New York will start their rounds on the first tee. The other half will start on the 10th tee.

This is nothing new.

The PGA Tour for years has used split tees except for limited-field events, like the Tour Championship, Mercedes Championships and World Golf Championships.

The reason often cited is flexibility. Starting from two tees provides an extra two hours of daylight and helps the tournament stay on schedule should bad weather get in the way.

Don't believe it.

The PGA Championship switched to split tees this year in Atlanta, and Jim Awtrey only mentioned Mother Nature as an afterthought.

"I think it is in response to what we all have realized," said Awtrey, the PGA of America's chief executive. "Pace of play is very difficult. We have not found a way to really reduce the pace of play to what we think it should be."

The USGA couldn't find a solution, either.

"There is valid criticism about pace of play at the Open and other golf competitions," USGA spokesman Marty Parkes said. "We've tried to do things to address that. Obviously, we haven't been successful."

No one has.

Lanny Wadkins walked off Valhalla Golf Club last year at the PGA Championship after a round that lasted more than six hours. A reporter made the mistake of asking him if he had time to answer some questions.

"Man, I ain't got time for nothing," Wadkins huffed.

Slow play at Valhalla was blamed on players capable of reaching all the par 5s. But what about Pebble Beach at last year's U.S. Open? Or St. Andrews, which had no rough and hardly any wind over four days?

It's not like players have to carry their own bags. Plus, they have a posse of marshals on every hole to find their errant shots.

They would do well to heed the advice of the late Julius Boros, a U.S. Open and PGA champion who once said, "By the time you get to your ball, if you don't know what to do with it, try another sport."

Somewhere along the way, touring professionals confused their jobs with open-heart surgery. PGA Tour rules official Mark Russell told of one player, whom he declined to identify, who was fined for slow play and offered this excuse when he appealed:

"I was the third guy to hit in my group, and I had just as much right to the same wind that the first two guys had."

There is plenty of blame to throw around.

Players have a responsibility to enforce the rules. They call penalties on themselves for harmless infractions only they can see, yet ignore the pace-of-play policy.

Golf is no longer a game of hitting the ball, finding it, and hitting it again. There is wind to be measured, whether that means tossing blades of grass in the air or studying the gentle movement of 60-foot high branches. There are caddie conferences for even the most routine shots. There are sports psychologists who tell players not to hit until they're ready.

Tournament officials have an obligation to keep play moving. Instead, they "enforce" the rules by telling players they are out of position and pulling out a stopwatch.

What player wouldn't pick up the pace?

Fulton Allem compared that to a state trooper who pulls over a motorist for going 100 mph. Instead of writing him a ticket, he threatens to follow him the next five miles to make sure he doesn't go over the speed limit.

Frank Hannigan, the former USGA executive director who is highly critical of the switch to split tees, thinks the USGA and other golf organizations are too soft.

He sees no end to slow play.

"The only way anybody can pull it off is to take the Draconian approach of having a strict system and throwing a lot of penalties around," Hannigan said. "That becomes the story of the week, and they can't handle that. They're not going to penalize anybody."

Split tees will not ruin the U.S. Open.

The players didn't mind at the PGA Championship, and the fans don't notice.

Still, courses are designed for players to start on No. 1 and finish on No. 18. The game was not designed to take longer than four hours at the most.

"I suppose there are answers, but they're harsh," said Tom Meeks, a top rules official for the USGA. "Maybe one of these days an organization will say, 'We don't care of it's too harsh, we're going to do that."'

The USGA won't be that organization. In the never-ending battle against slow play, it has surrendered.


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