Thursday, November 20, 2008

Fixing slow play in golf: reduce bottlenecks

Stephen Shmanske, in his recent book Golfonomics, sheds some light on slow play on the golf course. Bottlenecks – especially par 3’s – are as much to blame as any other factor. Shmanske shows how pace of play on par 4’s can be perfectly acceptable at 14 minutes a hole, but overall pace of play for a round gets blown away by queues at par 3’s. The delays start out very small early in the day, but can steadily grow to 30 minute waits.

The problem with par 3’s is that only one foursome can play the hole at a time. Unlike par 4’s, which have two playing “stations”, par 3’s have, by design, only one “station” on which to play. Where play per station on a par 4 is generally about 7 minutes (14 minutes for the hole), par 3’s almost always require 9 to 10 minutes for completion.. Golfers can easily make their way around the course in 7 minutes per station – until they reach the par 3. Then the queue builds up and golfers start to get annoyed.

Many pace of play “experts” suggest that the key to improving pace of play is to spread the tee times. Rather than 7 or 8 minute spacings, they suggest using 9 or 10 minutes. But that hurts the golf course financially, as fewer foursomes can be scheduled through the day. Those who advocate 9 or 10 minute spacings are essentially saying that the entire golf course should be spaced to the requirements of the par 3’s, with their 9 minute stations.

Shmanske offers a solution, but admits it is difficult to get buy in. In his book, he shows that queueing can be eliminated at par 3’s if the foursome on the green delays putting out for two minutes, and allows the foursome on the tee to hit to the green. Then, as the second foursome makes their way to the green and – of course – the greenside bunkers, the first foursome goes ahead and putts out. In effect, this tactic allows two foursomes to play on the par 3’s single “station” simultaneously.

I was skeptical upon first reading Shmanske’s solution, so I used an Excel spreadsheet to simulate the queueing. Shmanske is absolutely correct. Calling up the next foursome before putting on the par 3’s will definitely end delays at par 3’s. My local golf association experimented with this tactic on one tournament hole this summer, and discovered it worked well. For some reason, though, they reverted to the one foursome per par 3 norm for the next tournament, and experienced the 15 and 20 minute waits as play backed up.

It’s very difficult to implement the call up strategy during non-tournament open play. but I think we need to find a way at my golf course.