It worked. The first event held under the European Tour’s new protocols on pace of play was played quicker than it had been in similar conditions a year ago. Now, one of the circuit’s most influential voices wants the foot kept to the pedal so that the tour can “send a signal to the world” in its attempt to tackle the game’s biggest problem once and for all.
The Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship featured a new four-point plan, one of the steps being an immediate one-shot penalty for anyone incurring two “bad times” in the same tournament as opposed to the same infringement in only one round.
Two players, Norwegian Viktor Hovland and UAE amateur Ahmed Skaik, were effectively shown yellow cards as they found themselves on a “bad time register” in the Rolex Series event, with other culprits also set to be named and shamed going forward.
“So far, so good,” reported Andy McFee, the tour’s senior referee, in delivering his report on week one, during which three-ball matches averaged just over four hours 30 minutes as rules officials witnessed a complete “buy in” by the players after the tour had implemented an education process since the proposal to launch the plan was first announced last August.
“Interestingly, the first round was actually ten minutes quicker this year than it was last year,” added McFee. “And the second round was about six minutes quicker, so both rounds were quicker. The flow around the course was brilliant. There are always things that go into a slow round of golf. It is not just about players playing slowly.”
Even Bryson DeChambeau, one of the most notorious slow coaches in the game, seemed to embrace the new protocols. “I love it,” said the American of the plan of attack ahead of the event before backing up his words when it mattered most out on the course.
Billy Foster, one of the most experienced caddies in the game and currently on Matt Fitzpatrick’s bag, was in the same group with DeChambeau in the opening two rounds and said he planned to shake his hand and say “credit where credit is due” after noticing a marked difference in his pace of play.
“The players who have traditionally been tardy looked to me like they were getting on with it,” reported McFee. “Interestingly, a couple of players who were playing with someone they know is slow said there was a big difference. They were more ready to play than they had ever been.”
Hovland, one of the European game’s rising stars took 59 seconds to hit a putt, apparently having taken “a hell of a long time” to line up the line on his ball, while Ahmed Skaik took 109 seconds over a shot.
“There was not one breach of in-position timing,” continued McFee. “We had one or two usual suspects who got close but didn’t go over, which was good. And we have a much better chance now of getting people on that because we have reduced the limit from 100 to 85 and 80 to 70 seconds. It was hard to get anyone going over 100 seconds. Eighty-five seconds is still too bloody long, but at least we’ve got more of a chance.”
This event benefited from the field consisting of only 132 players, which allowed 11-minute intervals between groups to be implemented. The Omega Dubai Desert Classic this week is also expected to run on time, but that will become more of a challenge when fields grow to 156 later in the season.
“Pace of play has been great this week,” said Thomas Bjorn, the 2018 Ryder Cup-winning captain and former chairman of the tournament committee. “It’s been amazing, but these are the things we need. It seems like the players have said to themselves, ‘well, this is it’.
“Our referees have been proactive. They have spoken to the players about it and it seems everything is running nicely on the golf course. This is the way forward. It’s been brilliant. I hope it doesn’t go like it goes in other sports when you have rules changes and it seems like the first three or four weeks everybody is up for it, but then you kind of forget about it.
“I hope it is pushed forward and we send a good signal to the world that we are taking this seriously, that we want to finish rounds on time and we want to be in control of everything we do.”
That increased volume of traffic in other big events is sure to cause McFee and his fellow referees some headaches going forward, but, if players continue to embrace being educated on the time it should take to complete rounds in an acceptable time in the interim, then that can only be good for the game.
“These are big steps, but I think it is the right thing to do,” added Bjorn. “I feel like it’s been proactive from the tour, with referees having good conversations with the players. There has been a good feeling among players and caddies as everyone tries to get on with it and hopefully it solves a problem that has been in the game for a long, long time.”