Pace of Play, Safety and Players’ Golf “I.Q.”

Two items of particular interest to all clubs and golf courses are pace of play and player safety.  Unimpeded pace of play makes for a more enjoyable experience for all golfers and player safety pretty much speaks for itself.  Nobody wants to get struck by errant shots.  Both also have an impact on the financial well-being of the club.

Last weekend, while visiting my son for a college football weekend, we went to play the public-access Penn State Blue Course.  Having played there numerous times during my time at Penn State, despite some changes, playing there is always nostalgic.  Jack and I were paired with another father-son tandem who were more than pleasant, relatively novice golfers.  Having played (like most of us) with golfers of all skill levels, what occurred to me more than anything was how limited many players’ “Golf I.Q.” can be.

What is “Golf I.Q.”?  To many, “Golf I.Q.” is how well one manages their game to produce their best score.  In the context of this article, “Golf I.Q.” refers more to enhancing the pace of play and the safety of a recreational round of golf.

A big element in the discussion is golf carts.  Since Jack and I were walking and our partners were in a cart, there was a lack of continuity between us that created some safety hazards.  This was only exacerbated by the disparity in skill levels with our companions being novice golfers.  Since the growth of the game depends on experienced players introducing golf to new players, the onus is on the experienced player to keep things safe.  Golf carts not only need to be operated safely, but the operators need to be aware of the other players and the more experienced players should be sensitive to the skill level of their partners and observe where they’re playing from.  From an etiquette perspective, golf carts also require familiarity with operating so as not to interfere with the play of others, both within and beyond the foursome.  Keeping carts a distance from greens and tees and other sensitive areas also preserves the condition of the course for the next group and other players.  Ensuring that cart paths are used and that steep slopes and wet areas are navigated with care is simple common sense.

I’ve observed for many years that golf carts can actually slow pace of play when operated by someone that is not familiar with efficient cart practices.  Since two players typically ride in a cart, it takes planning to avoid going from one ball to the other and each player needs to understand when to get out and walk to their ball be dropped off while their cart mate may go to the opposite side of the hole.  Leaving the cart on the side of the green where the next tee is located is a big time saver since players behind can approach the green as soon as you leave the green area.

Among the most critical safety issues is keeping track of the players around you.  Knowing where their balls are to avoid being hit and knowing where they’re standing when you’re hitting is a big element of “Golf I.Q.”  Being hit by a golf ball can result in serious injury and avoiding such incursions requires vigilance.  It is also the responsibility of all players to avoid striking or being struck by golf clubs during one’s swing.  Knowing where to stand when others are swinging and being aware of where others are when you’re swinging is also an element of “Golf I.Q.” that enhances player safety.  Not only can golf clubs hurt people, but clubheads can separate from the shaft flying in random directions and be very dangerous.

The economics of both pace of play and safety are significant.  Some courses employ rangers to monitor play and ensure that the pace is favorable in the interest of providing a satisfying experience because if a course gets a reputation for being slow, players stay away.  If a course plays slowly, it reduces the amount of play and impacts revenues in all departments.  If a course has safety issues that have or could result in insurance claims, the club’s insurance cost will increase.

A third element of “Golf I.Q.” is care for the golf course.  While difficult to measure the economic impact, the culture of a club can be determined by how players treat the golf course.  In its most fundamental form, golf is quite simple.  Tom Watson advises to “play the course as you find it and leave the course as you find it”.  This means, more than anything else to replace divots, repair ball marks and rake bunkers.  It’s simply courteous to your fellow players and helps the maintenance crew provide a consistent quality of conditioning for all players.  A player who routinely respects the golf course is often the player who respects his/her playing companions and is more fun to play with.

The presentation of the golf course also impacts pace of play.  A 2016 study by the USGA concluded that increased green speed, lower fairway mowing heights and longer, more uniform rough all contributed to increasing the length of a round of golf.  While few golfers enjoy longer rough, many seek faster greens and tighter fairways even though they are believed to lengthen a round.  Longer rough, however would seem to be a bigger culprit of slow play, increasing searches for lost balls and added time in extricating oneself from the rough.

Golf needs to find a way to ensure that all players have an adequate “Golf I.Q.” before venturing out on the course.  Some courses try a speech by the starter to each group that can be annoying.  Other police the course with rangers who are often either too aggressive or too passive to be effective.  Some clubs actually test potential members to ensure that they practice good etiquette and safety and respect the golf course as a matter of routine.  The USGA regularly runs commercials during telecasts of their championships that address all of these issues, yet while we all want the game to grow, the culture of the game and the sometimes onerous rules and application of those rules scares new golfers away.  It’s incumbent upon us, the experienced players, to bring along the next generation of golfers by embracing their learning of the game in a manner that is welcoming, non-threatening and comfortable.  If we do, golf will grow and more players will have a high “Golf I.Q.”