Former PGA Rules Official Explains Why Slow Play Persists

Patrick Cantlay, 2023 Masters Tournament, Augusta National,Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Network
Patrick Cantlay, 2023 Masters Tournament, Augusta National,Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Network /

Since Patrick Cantlay was accused of slow play at the Masters, it has become a hot topic, once again.

This is not the first time that slow play has been hot. So, to get some answers, it seemed sensible to go to someone who knows more about slow play than anybody on Earth. As former Vice President of Rules and Competition for the PGA Tour, Mark Russell saw 40-plus years of slow play, strange drops, sideways shots, and unusual rulings.

“About every three years it becomes a very hot topic for about two or three months,” Russell said about slow play in a video podcast for The Golf Show 2.0.

Having lived through four decades of handling slow play and hearing similar complaints from players, viewers, fans, and more, Russell explained part of it as the nature of golf.  It’s a hard game to play well.

“People have problems,” he said. “I mean, you know, a guy has to go back and hit another shot or handle some penalty situations. A guy makes big scores. You know, it’s a very imperfect science.”

In fact, Russell said that during his tenure as a rules guy, the biggest topic of conversation among the rules staff every day of every week was where players were on the course. How fast they were playing or how slow.  Could they all finish?  What was the weather going to allow?

"“When you have 156 players, like I say, you tee off 26 groups,” former PGA Tour Rules Official Mark Russell explained. ”Once they make the turn, you’ve got eight more groups than you got holes.”"

One solution, or at least partial solution, would be to limit field size. The PGA Tour membership obviously doesn’t want that. If they were all to vote on that topic, the majority would want larger versus smaller fields because it allows more of them to make money.

However, Russell gave a recent example of what has happened at the Genesis Invitational, Tiger Woods’ own tournament at Riviera CC, which this year had 130 players. One year players didn’t finish.

"“We just didn’t have enough daylight to do it,” Russell explained. “We had to tee off before sunrise, and I hoped and prayed every day that they would have a sunny day where it wouldn’t be overcast so that we could do that.”"

He said it was next to impossible to get the players around the course on Thursday and Friday because there is less light that time of year.

At the Arnold Palmer Invitational, they only have 120 players because it is an invitational. To get play around on the weekend with fewer delays, what they did was to use 12-minute intervals instead of 10 or 11- minute ones.  That allowed each weekend pairing to play without holdups, at least on the front nine.

The real slowdowns come playing 156 golfers on Thursday and Friday.  That’s because the field is divided into four large groups. Two of the groups play in the morning, half starting on one tee and half starting on ten. The other two groups play off one and ten in the afternoon.

Halfway through each session, golfers make the turn and play the other half of the golf course.  That’s where the problem comes.

"“When you have 156 players, like I say, you tee off 26 groups,” Russell explained. ”Once they make the turn, you’ve got eight more groups than you got holes.  Where are they going to go?”"

When it comes to getting players around the course, Russell said his philosophy was to get them out on 11-minute intervals, which allowed everyone to play the first nine in peace. The second nine, though, would be slow because there were more players than there are holes to put them on.

Two parts of golf course design can add to the congestion, Russell agreed: par fives and drivable par fours.

Most par fives these days can be reached in two shots by today’s Tour players.  That means every group is waiting in the fairway to hit their second shots until the green clears.  In the past when a par five was a three-shot hole for most golfers, there was less waiting and more playing.  Two groups could easily be on the same hole without waiting, sometimes three.

Drivable par fours have really become long par threes. Like the 17th at TPC Scottsdale has become.  There, to speed up play, the golfers on the green will wait while the next group hits drives.  Then the group on the tee walks up while the group on or near the green finishes the hole and moves on to the 18th.

Russell said he used to tell slower players that the key was to be ready to hit or prepare to hit when they reach their ball. Don’t get to the ball and then start putting on the glove. Do that beforehand.

"“The key on the PGA tour is the speed limit is 65,” Russell added. “We don’t want you doing 120, and we don’t want you doing 40. Anywhere from 55 to about 70, that’s where you need to dial your game into and don’t get frustrated.”"

As for Cantlay, he said they waited on every shot, all the way around the course.

What that means is that someone at the head of the pack was playing slowly. That slowed down the entire field. Since players with the worst scores start first every day, it’s no wonder.

PGA Tour Rules Official on Potential Slow Play Solutions

Asked whether certain things would speed up play, Mark Russell responded:

"Range Finders: “For a long time you’d have guys use the range finder and then pull the book out of their pocket and start looking at it.”Shot Clock: “It would disrupt a lot of players’ concentration in play.”"

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"Slower Greens: “I don’t see how that would speed up play that that would help somewhat,” Russell said. “Two minutes, you know, on a four hour and 15-20 minute round.”Green Speeds Today Versus 25 Years Ago: “For the most part 11 and a half to 12, 12 and a half.  Twenty-five years ago, it was probably more like 10 point 5 to 11.”"