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February 19, 2019

It's fair to say that golf's rule changes at the start of 2019 have so far split opinion. While many would argue that they were implemented in good faith, others have pointed to a lack of transparency in some areas, such as when Chinese player Haotong Li was given a two-shot penalty for his caddy standing directly behind him as he was getting ready to hit a birdie putt on the 72nd hole at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic - costing him solo third place and $98,000 in the process. 

That particular ruling, and a similar ruling that was later rescinded against Denny McCarthy at the Waste Management Phoenix Open this month, caused outrage among players and fans alike, and the PGA Tour were quick to step in and call for more clarity from the USGA. 

However, another area where fans of the game have been voicing their frustrations for a lot longer, with little success, is slow play. So why hasn't this issue been properly addressed yet?

Before we start, the solution is not to give all tour pros their own riding cart, and we have already busted some myths about slow play on the golf course. Perhaps if some of the slower tour pros ditched their real caddy for an electric golf caddy, this would speed things up, but that is a topic for another time. 

For starters, what constitutes as slow play is objective. It goes without saying that some players are quicker than others, and for a while, that was just accepted as the way things were. It certainly didn't get in between Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus's friendship despite the former being considerably quicker than the latter. 

But as golf moved into the 21st century, the media's interrogation of players increased tenfold where it became increasingly normal for armchair fans to listen in on player-caddy conversations and watch preshot routines. And while most golf fans would agree that something needs to be done about slow play, would there be a mini-backlash from traditionalists who view everything from Keegan Bradley's two-step to Bryson DeChambeau's scientific ramblings as simply part of the drama? Possibly. 

Speaking of Bryson, his win in January at the same event in which Haotong Li was penalized, the Omega Dubai Desert Classic, was in many ways symbolic of current attitudes towards slow play. 

DeChambeau is undoubtedly a very talented golfer, having won the NCAA Division 1 Championship, the U.S. Amateur, and 7 professional tournaments by the age of 25. However, his unique approach to the game which relies heavily on the use of yardage and green reading books, precise numbers and equations, has won him plenty of admirers. 

On the other hand, there are just as many if not more people who called him out for his slow play - at times taking over a minute and a half to play a shot on his way to a seven-stroke victory. 

This put the European Tour in a difficult situation. On one hand, you have a player in the final group on Sunday of one of their biggest tournaments taking way too long to hit a shot, and on the other, you have one of the world's best players running laps around the field and announcing that he's taking up European Tour membership shortly afterward. At a time when the tour was still reeling from Rory McIlroy's decision to focus more on playing in America, you can't blame the powers that be for siding with DeChambeau albeit through silence alone. 

Perhaps the biggest issue with penalizing slow play is whether penalties can be applied consistently. It's all very well crying out for repercussions for slow players who are in the spotlight on a Sunday afternoon, but is there a guarantee that these players would be treated the same as the last three-ball heading up the 9th hole on Thursday afternoon when the cameras have been turned off and most fans have already left the golf course? As things stand, the answer would be yes considering penalties are very rarely if ever, given out. But any change would have to ensure that players in both situations outlined above were treated fairly and equally. 

In the past, when penalties have been awarded such as the one handed to Guan Tianlang, the then 14-year-old amateur at the Masters in 2013, there has been more criticism from fans for making an example of a player rather than praise for addressing the issue. 

Adam Scott is one player who seems to be a supporter of taking a hard-line approach. Speaking with Golf Digest prior to this year's Genesis Open, Scott suggested that the PGA Tour "make me the victim." He said: "I'll take the penalty. The only way it's going to work is if you enforce it." 

However, after playing 36-holes in the final group at Riviera with eventual winner J.B. Holmes, who was also called out on Twitter and elsewhere for his sluggish pace, Scott resigned himself to the fact that "until television and sponsors say, 'no more money,' slow play ain't going to change." Or as he added even more bluntly, "just get over it". 

While he may be right, if the golf tours ever want to take this issue seriously, I don't see any reason why each player couldn't be timed for every shot and at the end of the round come out with an average shot time. If that time is over a certain benchmark, e.g. 40 seconds, then they get a one-shot penalty. If they are significantly over that then the additional shot penalties could be added in increments. 

If the players are in any doubt over how long they are taking, they would simply need to ask their group's timer and adjust their pre-shot routine accordingly. In more extreme circumstances such as when weather conditions are particularly difficult,  the maximum average shot time could be increased based on the average time of all players across a certain day. If a player's time significantly increased if they needed longer for a specific ruling, Jordan Spieth on the 13th hole at the 2017 British Open comes to mind, then this time could be disregarded from the average. 

Would some players hate this idea? Almost certainly, yes. Would it be tweaked over time? Most likely. However, it would show that the governing bodies and major golf tours are finally taking action on an issue that supporters, players, and analysts have been complaining about for decades. 

Despite Adam Scott's begrudging acceptance, public protestation over golf's slow play problem is not going anywhere, and it should not continue to be swept under the carpet by those who have the power to change it for the better. 

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