It isn't some huge, cloudy mystery why the Scots play golf faster than we do in the U.S.
Weekend rounds in the States usually head north of five hours, but the Scots start getting restless at about three and half hours. At Muirfield, members are required to play foursomes much of the time in an alternate shot format that gets them around in well under three hours.
This issue is a big deal, because I believe the No. 1 threat to golf's prosperity is length of play. Four hours in 2009 is more precious than it was in 1969. We're all in one bloody, multi-tasking hurry nowadays, and people are playing less golf as a result.
The game is done right in Scotland for a lot of reasons. The ability to get around the course in an enjoyable and timely fashion may be their greatest lesson to us - but we're not paying attention.
Even on the Old Course in St. Andrews, which is packed to the gills most days, I've finished in about four hours (the only places it gets slow are on the confusing "loop" in the back of the course; on the 17th tee, since you can't see the fairway; and on the 18th fairway, where groups stop for the obligatory Swilcan Bridge photo op).
Having just made my second golf trip to Scotland, I've narrowed their speed down to the following reasons. Any U.S. courses hoping to match the Scots' ability to play even weekend rounds in well under four hours should take heed:
• Members tees: This might be a shock to many people, but most Scottish clubs have only one daily set of tees, generally between 5,800 yards to 6,300 yards long (with another set for women). Although the longer white "medal" tees are there, you're usually not allowed to play them without doing some serious pleading with the club to convince them you're under about a 4-handicap.
• Scots also save their boozing for after the round. There is no beverage cart on Scottish golf courses (and few have halfway houses). Most golfers carry a bottle of water and move quickly to get back to the clubhouse for a drink.
In the States foursomes back up on the tee while waiting for the group in the fairway to quit hitting on the cart chick as she pours screwdrivers. Then the players get so sauced they begin spraying balls all over the yard and finish the round wrestling in a green side bunker on 18 (or is that just me and my playing partners?)
• The Scots also hardly ever use golf carts. One of the biggest reasons behind slow play in the States is that many golfers are recreational players who don't play very often and, as a result, don't understand golf cart efficiency. Rather than dropping players off at their balls and having them walk up the fairway after the driver hits, they hit shots one at a time, which turns into an excruciating zig-zag down each fairway.
When a foursome walks, there is very little wait between shots.
• Also, most Scots belong to home clubs, which they play the majority of the time. They know where to hit every shot. Even when they mishit off-line, they know where to look for the ball - and which spots are probably a lost cause.
• They also don't count every stroke during daily rounds. The R&A handicap system in Scotland is different than in America, where the USGA requires you to score every round. The Scots only count scores in official medal tournaments. For leisure play they usually stick to match play or Stableford, where you pick up your ball once out of the hole.
This makes the game more fun, too, because you're not grinding for 17 holes after your opening triple bogey.
These are all issues that could be addressed and solved if the USGA and U.S. golf courses get behind them, but it's probably a safe bet they will be implemented slower than my weekend fourballs back in the U.S.
May 27, 2009