As a former caddie – at every level of the game – it kills me to watch Bryson DeChambeau take two or three minutes to hit a shot. If I were his caddie I’d be sorely tempted to tell him to play faster. The only thing holding me back would be the fear of getting fired for speaking out and the resulting loss of a very impressive paycheck given the quality of his PGA Tour play.
Judging from the outpouring on social media this weekend during the The Northern Trust, a lot of people share my impatience with tortoise-like play on the PGA Tour. The outrage manifests itself publicly here and there based upon what we watch on TV. It might be Rory Sabbatini walking ahead of Ben Crane at the 2005 Booz Allen Classic at Congressional CC to hit his tee shot on 18 before the slowpoke putted out on 17. Or Brooks Koepka pointing to his watch at the 2019 Open Championship while J.B. Holmes was dithering yet again before hitting. Or at Liberty National seeing Justin Thomas express impatience over DeChambeau taking forever.
Of course, slow play isn't just obvious on the PGA and LPGA Tours. It’s also evident everyday at golf courses across the country. Too many players take forever. They are out of position. Don't have their yardage. Indulge in endless pre-shot routines. Or are just in a fog and can’t seem to do two things at once, like walk and write down their score. Or ride and think about their next shot.
I attribute it a lot to the decline of the caddie ranks and to the loss among many golfers of a sense of place on the golf course. You had to learn where to stand so you could stay out of the way and yet be ready to move to the next shot. And when you got to the green you always knew to place the bag down between the hole and the next tee. Everything was done for the sake of keeping pace and shortening the path and thus the time involved.
As a caddie you were always aware of time. You hated waiting around in the middle of the fairway under a hot sun while the group ahead took forever to putt out. And your job was organized around getting the player ready to hit his or her next shot. So the rules of the trade included getting to the ball before your player, having the information ready that you needed - yardage, wind, hole location, terrain, trouble ahead – and being ready to answer or speak up when addressed. Your job was to get the player to hit his or her next shot and to simplify the process and expedite the matter so you could move on.
You learned about being ready. About being in position. And learned not to tolerate slow pokes who were distracted, unable to commit to a shot, or whose mind seemed elsewhere. Every wasted minute during a round was another tick off of the clock you needed for the next round – or for going home to play golf or hang out. Slow players were messing with your time, your life and your money.
My sense is that slow players didn’t caddie when they were kids. I can’t prove this. It’s based upon a hunch, inference and years of observation. I have yet to undertake the kind of conclusive scientific research needed that would link temporal behavior with employment history through time and motion studies. I’ll leave that to the USGA. My simple claim is that the values associated with caddying are incompatible with slow play. When I see elite collegians taking five-and-half hours to play, I know it’s because they learned their golf with textbook coaches who preach the game in terms of endless routines and checkpoints rather than a caddie-yard ethos of see the shot, hit the shot, and move on.
More than slow play
The thin ranks of American caddie yards have hurt the game in many ways, actually. Recruitment into the game suffers when you depend on people to discover the game for themselves as adults, by which time they judge golf as one of many available pay-for-play recreational options. How much better is access to the golf course for caddies on Monday; or to the range on a slow afternoon. The best way to guarantee the next generation of golfers is to catch their attention when they are young so they get hooked emotionally on the game’s beauty.
Ask anyone in the golf business today and they will also tell you that the labor market for golf has suffered because the people available to hire have little if any experience with the game. Ever wonder why those tee markers set out early by a crew member got so crooked? It’s because the odds are the person who placed them there does not play the game and doesn’t know the importance of proper alignment.
Hiring qualified, experienced help on a golf course these days is impossible. Ask many course superintendents and they will tell you how hard it is to hire skilled labor. Enrollments at turf schools are way down nationally. And any many management company will tell you how hard it is to staff pro shops with someone who knows the routines and rhythms of golf etiquette. No wonder customer relations suffer.
If more people caddied, the game would be healthier, as would its future. And the pace of play would be quicker. Which is better for everyone, even for non-golfers watching Tour play on TV.