Pace of Play Management Series: "The Problem Defined"

This post is the first in a series on the science of pace of play management.  Through his extensive research, Dr. Lou Riccio, FAIRWAYiQ's chief analytics officer, has developed actionable pace of play management techniques that are outlined in his "Pace of Play Bible." These proven techniques are based upon science and are the results of years of research - they are not hunches or guesses.  

Some of the techniques that will be discussed in future posts can be implemented immediately and others will require more work. 

Our introductory topic in this series on pace of play management is "The Problem Defined".  Here is the excerpt from Dr. Riccio's "Pace of Play Bible": 

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Pace of Play – The Problem Defined

There are several aspects to the problem of slow play depending on your point of view. For some the problem is that the overall time to finish a round is too long. For others long waiting periods before strokes can be played is the problem even if the overall time is not intolerable. For golf course operators, slow play may have an effect on the number of rounds they can provide (and sell) in a day.

There is some inter connectivity of these issues, but there is also some independence. There may even be some conflicts in that by improving one aspect, another may be hurt. Let’s consider each one.

Time to Play 18 Holes

The common wisdom is that the time it takes to play an 18 hole round has increased dramatically over the last few decades. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence to that point. One need not look further than the US Open in which a time of 4 hours was considered long in the days of Ben Hogan and Sam Snead while a round of 5 and a half hours is standard at today’s championship.

At many public and daily fee courses, 5 hour rounds are common. In some cases, the rounds take six hours. I like to play golf for six hours, but I expect to play 36 holes in that time. How much of a problem is this? Is the extra hour (or two) significant? According to Frank Thomas’ study and his follow up interviews, that extra hour amounts to something close to a tipping point. That extra hour can turn a half day commitment into what seems to be a full day’s. It cannot be said with certainty, but it is not unreasonable to believe that that extra hour has discouraged a sizeable number of golfers from playing more golf.

Of course it could just be an excuse. There could be other reasons which people don’t want to admit to which are the real culprits. Other reasons could be pressure at the office or home. But even in those cases, time must be a factor in making the decision to play or not.

Whether it is a real cause or an excuse, there is no reason not to try to get the pace back in line with an average of 4 hours or less on a typical course. Most people would say that this – the time to play 18 holes - is the real problem. Getting the typical round back to 4 hours would likely go a long way to bring back interest in the game.

Waiting Time to Hit

But to others, waiting on every shot is more important than overall time to play. This problem - the total waiting time until it is your turn to hit as a result of waiting for the group ahead to clear the landing zone over the course of an 18 hole round - is under-represented at least by the general discussion in the media.  (The time waiting to hit while waiting for other players in your own group is particularly excruciating, but that’s the company you keep. Three/45 Golfers lead by example and provide positive instruction to get their own fellow competitors to pick up the pace.)

It is quite possible that “waiting on every shot” is far more of a problem for the enjoyment of the game than the overall time to play, and it may be a significant factor driving regular golfers from playing more. Although the overall time to play may be what’s driving people away from the game, waiting to hit on every shot is a huge deterrent to the enjoyment of the game.

MIT Professor Richard Larson is probably the world’s leading waiting time analysis expert.  After building the most sophisticated mathematical models of waiting time for everything from waiting for your bags at the airport to waiting for the police to respond to a crime, he came to the conclusion that it is often not how long you wait but how you wait. Unoccupied (just standing around) wait time is the most annoying. And waiting time for no good reason is particularly aggravating. That pretty much describes waiting for the group ahead to clear or waiting on a par 3 tee until the group (or groups) ahead finish. It might not add up to a lot of time, but it sure ruins the day.

My research indicates that it is not unlikely that two groups can play in the same amount of overall time, but one can have far more waiting time to hit shots. If the first group is “slow”, they will not wait on shots but the group behind them will wait on almost every shot. Although both groups will likely play in about the same time the second will be far more frustrated and complain that the round was a miserable experience.

Is this a different problem than the first? Yes and actually may be exacerbated as we speed up play. As groups get faster, they may not get faster at the same rate, thus causing some golfers to wait on some shots, even though the overall pace has improved. Interestingly, the total waiting time for the group ahead to clear is in many cases unrelated to the total time to play 18 holes. Groups can play slowly but be spread far apart, thus not causing any shot delay, while at another time all the groups could be “fast” but are so close together any variation in playing time would result in shot delays.

This problem, the percentage or total amount of time on the course for which you are waiting for the group ahead to clear, is grossly under researched and not understood. I will discuss this later in the book.

Revenue Management

As said above, to course owners, golf is a business. As much as they love the game, if they don’t earn a profit, their course will soon become a real estate development. To private club managers, they want to please as many members as possible when they want to be pleased. And publicly-owned courses want both, more revenue and more satisfied tax-paying golfers.

Does slow play hurt their bottom line? Logically you would think it can’t help. That has to be true at least in the long run. If slow play is forcing people from the game, fewer rounds will be played and in turn less revenue will be realized or fewer members will be happy.

But as is true in other parts of this problem, improving one thing might hurt another. Contrary to common thought, efforts to increase revenue may be a major contributor to overall slow play. My research and that of others such as Bill Yates, indicate that if you put too many golfers on the course, you may make more money in the short run, but you will guarantee long rounds and lots of waiting.