Jack Nicklaus Says Today's Golf Ball to Blame for Slow Play

Kathy BissellCorrespondent IJuly 28, 2013

Tianlang Guan, 14-year-old Chinese amateur, received slow play penalty at The Masters.
Tianlang Guan, 14-year-old Chinese amateur, received slow play penalty at The Masters.Scott Halleran/Getty Images

When describing the length of the Sunday round at the 1983 Kemper Open, former CBS announcer Ben Wright said something like "See those ducks? They were mere eggs at the beginning of today."

Slow play, until recently, was one of the least discussed and most annoying aspects of golf. Now, it's getting attention mainly because a 14-year-old amateur from China, Tianlang Guan, and a 21-year-old professional from Japan, Hideki Matsuyama, received penalty strokes for slow play at majors this season. In addition, the USGA has taken up the banner of eliminating slow play.

It's not uncommon for multiple groups to be stacked up on par-threes at PGA Tour events. But ironically enough, it's the six-hour rounds on Thursdays and Fridays at the U.S. Open, run by the USGA, that are the worst offenders every year.

Why is play so slow? No one seems to know for certain, but Jack Nicklaus has a theory.

"It's not just the players that cause the slow play," Nicklaus contends. "It's the difficulty of the golf course, the length of the golf course and the distance the golf ball goes, and you're playing a lot of golf course, and it takes more time."

Par has even changed as far as most tournament golf courses are concerned. The USGA used to have established lengths for holes. The longest par-three was supposed to be 155 yards. Par-fives used to start when a hole was 475. Everything in between was a par-four. Today, there are 220-yard par-threes and 500-plus-yard par-fours. And who-knows-what par-fives.

Nicklaus said difficult conditions, which could be anything from wind to high rough, can also cause play to slow. But he blames one thing in particular.

"The main culprit (in) slow play, to me, is the golf ball and the distance the golf ball goes," he said. "Golf, it used to take three hours, three and a half hours, British Open, you used to play the last round in three hours or less. Today they take close to five hours."

One reason for longer times during majors, according to Nicklaus and anybody who plays in them, is the difficulty of the setup.

"The more time it takes to play it, the harder it is on the public to watch and the harder it is to manage and the harder it is for the pros to become role models for the young people watching who are going to say, I'm going to emulate a pro and copy what he does. And all of a sudden that kid takes five hours, five-and a half hours, and it just sort of escalates right through the game," Nicklaus added. 

Nicklaus pointed to the golf ball as a fix. When the ball started going longer and straighter, courses had to be lengthened for the professionals to be able to play holes in the same measure of par without scores dropping into the low 60s. Some older courses were made obsolete for professional play because of the distance professionals can hit with today's equipment. That does not apply to average players, just to low-handicap amateurs and professionals.

Nicklaus does not see manufacturers being willing to change the way golf clubs are made or to go back to early metal wood days, and that is another reason he focuses on the ball.

"If we went back and left equipment alone but changed the golf ball and brought it back, you played a shorter golf course, not only from the Tour standpoint would it be good, but a shorter golf course all through the game would mean less maintenance cost, less cost to play the game, quicker play, less land, less fertilizer, less everything, which would make the game more economical," he said.

You have to admit, he's got a point.

The modern standard for golf is the PGA Tour, which is ridiculously slow for threesomes. But according to PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem, a part of the issue is the number of players on the course each week.

"The question really is, whether we put 146 or 156 players on a golf course playing for $7 million, and we're teeing them off every eight minutes all day long, and we are clearing the decks at the end of the day at dark and often pushing our field sizes so much that we have a wait at the turn, does that relate to the average game?" he asked.

He does not think it does.

"When we cut, on the weekend, and we go to—let's say we have got 70 and ties and we are at 74—then we are playing, what, if we play in twos, we are probably playing in 3:45."

Still, twosomes: three hours and 45 minutes.

Amateurs want to be like tour pros, and many tour pros do not seem to play quickly, although their job is just to keep up with the group in front of them. Then add drops and lost balls and rulings, which add time to a round.

At the PGA Tour level, the best solution is one the PGA Tour is loath to adopt: smaller fields.

"We elect not to do that, because as much as we like to see a stronger pace of play, the playing opportunities for the number of players we have had are more important," Finchem said. "We'll generate the playing opportunities first and take our lumps second.  It's as simple as that."

Even Jack Nicklaus admits to being considered a slow player early in his career.

Joe Black, formerly of the PGA of America, the organization that ran the professional tournaments when Nicklaus first turned pro, brought pace of play to Nicklaus's attention and gave him a solution to speed up.

Black told Nicklaus he was waiting until other players were done with a shot before preparing for his shots from the fairway. He told Nicklaus the same thing was happening on the green. Nicklaus told Black he was trying to be courteous but learned to do as Black suggested. Because Nicklaus was a long hitter, once he got off the tee, he usually hit last from the fairway, so that gave him additional time to study his next shot.

"I started doing all my preparation before my shot while the other guys were hitting their shot," Nicklaus said. "When I got on the green, I start walking around the green, and I found out that it didn't bother the other players. So I stopped becoming a slow player and I became a player who managed what his problems were, and managed it so I could fit in with the field. I think that's what the players have to do."

Nicklaus still believes the target for the pace of play should be the golf ball and said the problem is being studied.

"Whatever answer they come to, I'm not sure exactly how they are going to come about it, but the game of golf needs to be played quicker," he concluded.

Kathy Bissell is a Golf Writer for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained first-hand or from official interview materials from the USGA, PGA Tour or PGA of America.