Most of my least enjoyable and highest scoring rounds are when waiting to play on a packed course of ever increasing slow play. In theory it shouldn’t affect the quality of my game. I should be mentally strong and patient enough not to let slow play impact my mood and ruin my focus. But I’m not. And perhaps neither are all those golfers in the slow groups ahead who are being held up by the slow group ahead of them who are also frustrated by another slow group.

So what can we do about it? This is part 1 of a two blogs that look at the causes of slow play, the things we can control and be responsible for to help mitigate slow play and the factors we can’t easily control – overcrowded courses.

Times have changed

Pre COVID, we could book a tee time in a nice gap or just rock-up and tee off with a decent separation ahead and behind us. No more. Booking is mandatory. Tee time slots get filled fast and courses in my area are packed. Naturally, courses want to provide as many tee off slots as possible to give members opportunities to play and to sell slots to visitors and societies, preferably in lucrative four balls. I don’t blame them.

Clubs and courses are running a business and many rely on vital wedding, events, bar and restaurant income which has been devastated, with a second wave of restrictions on the way. Their challenge has become balancing the maximising of revenue opportunities, following COVID safety rules that limit capacity, and delivering a good customer experience to pre-paid members and visitors with cash to spend. It’s about survival. Without a packed course of members and visitors, and the days getting shorter, courses might not survive and then slow play becomes no play. So let’s be grateful we can play at all.

Sage advice

The R and A Pace of Play Manual in section “2.2a – Overcrowding the Course” discusses the impact of starting time intervals using examples of 8 minutes for a twoball, 10 minutes for a threeball and 11-12 minutes for a fourball. But most courses don’t vary their tee times by group size.

I went onto Golf Now and randomly selected clubs across the UK with tee time availability in the coming week. Of the 20 courses reviewed, these were their published tee time intervals:

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8 minutes is the starting interval of choice for the majority of this random unscientific sample. However, following the March 2020 COVID lockdown, England Golf issued operational guidance to clubs and courses asking them to “Consider increasing the time between tee times to allow for easier social distancing.” Perhaps they should also have mentioned a better customer experience and repeat bookings as potential benefits but obviously safety was top of mind for this guidance and rightly so.

My course emphasises the need to maintain social distancing and tee time separation in order to avoid slow play and potentially risky congregations building up on tees. However, despite this advice, it’s tempting for a group to get off to a fast start which then reduces starting intervals.

Jumping the gun

Last week Neil and I teed off at our booked time right on the hour. 3 minutes later, the two-ball behind us were leaving the tee in their buggy having hit their drives as we walked after our second shots. Fine you might think, we were out of their range. But now on hole 1 you have 2 groups in a 3-4 minute starting separation and the group behind them are tempted to go early too. If starting separation isn’t respected it sets up a potential traffic jam as more groups set off early to compress the concertina and a crowd piles up on a par 3. It certainly did.

We have the technology

Currently, most tee time booking systems are not dynamic. In an age of big data and AI, intelligent systems could release and adjust tee times in real time, based on the number of booked players in a group. The software could adjust booked starting times (within limits) to deliver an optimal separation. Air traffic control for golf. The playing group could then get texts resetting start time expectations and notifying them on their phones to get ready when near the first tee. That might help. But for golfers like us, AI controlled tee times are not what we have today. We have just over 8 minute intervals and no matter how smart the tech could be, it won’t be able to control when we actually decide to hit the first drive or eliminate behaviours that contribute to slow play.

A few years ago I used to play at a nice pay-and-play course that had a starter – an intelligent human being who checked us in, made sure the group was ready, called them up, set them off and managed the actual tee off times to set appropriate separations. I fear those days are gone for all but the wealthiest courses but there’s definately a gap in the market for a low cost solution.

Enjoy your game

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Paul Hart is a founding director of PuttBANDIT Ltd, co-inventor of the PuttBANDIT Ball Marker and enthusiastic improver. Paul currently plays off a handicap index of 12.3 and is on the tee bang on his allotted tee time. Usually.