Slow play and golf’s future: a view from the caddie yard

Has the decline of the caddie ranks contributed to widespread issues?
The diminishing ranks of the American caddie could be partially to blame for many of the game's current woes like pace of play.

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.

Veteran golf travel, history and architecture journalist, Bradley S. Klein has written more than 1,500 feature articles on course architecture, resort travel, golf course development, golf history and the media for such other publications as Golfweek, Golf Digest, Financial Times, New York Times and Sports Illustrated. He has published seven books on golf architecture and history, including Discovering Donald Ross, winner of the USGA 2001 International Book Award. In 2015, Klein won the Donald Ross Award for lifetime achievement from the American Society of Golf Course Architects. Follow Brad on Twitter
17 Comments
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Commented on

These guys are playing for a paycheck..I'll give them some leeway..however,I think slow play can be allieviated on the greens....PUTT THROUGH! No marking,cleaning,lining,replacing..cleaning, remarking etc. Once on the green..player puts through..period. mark once...clean,line once, PUTT THROUGH to hole.

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You want to speed up,play;
1- require each player to use a range finder.
2- play ready golf. Hit it and move on.
Easy!

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Unfortunately, for the vast majority of recreational golfers, range finders are another element causing slow play. I have often seen 110+ players take out the range finder for 15 yards chip shots. Or a good player take out the range finder while almost stepping on the 250 yards marker. Too often , using the range finder has become part of the pre-shot ritual, like aligning the friggin' line on a putt.

Even for the pros, it's doubtful range finders would help, as the caddies know the exact distance, and much of the pre-shot discussion revolves about the wind, and then waiting for the "proper" wind before hitting.

We all have heard Bryson D. discuss with his caddie if his backswing should be 10:25 or 10:28 long.

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I am part of a group of ladies who play "efficient golf" - we don't drive to each ball but park midway, while waiting to putt we fix any plug marks left by others and similarly for divot repair while waiting to hit. Measurements are made while approaching our ball and we don't need to measure for every shot - especially on a par 3 you play every day and the only thing that changes is the pin placement. and walking smartly is important - dawdling because you like a nice outing and want to take your time is not on. being ready is naturally important but it isn't on everyone's list of must do.

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I think that it is time to allow all Pro golfers the opportunity to use GPS devices to speed up play
No longer will the players or caddies have to pace off their shots when they don't hit it in the fairway or 1st cut.
Also. only let the players mark their balls on the green only once in their alignment for their putt.
Remarking their alignment wastes time!!!

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Sorry most of us never had or will have a caddie. It comes down to a lack of respect for fellow players. Course marshals need too politely tell people to pick up the pace or pick up the ball and skip a hole. Taking over four hrs to play comes down to narcissistic people. Move it or move over!

Commented on

Very astute observations. Would also advocate unrealistically, that no one should be able to play until they have worked on the grounds crew for a day to gain a great appreciation for what the members of the GCSAA undertake to create a great golf experience.

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Brad Klein is correct on several points but I would add that some of the reason for slow play is new players are not learning the basics before starting. My first group lesson over 22 years ago I never touched a club. We talked about scoring, rules, and etiquette which included how to keep pace. If this were still taught it would help. I give some credit to the PGA as I am now seeing more pros "clean up" rather than mark the short putts. This sends a message to us mortals that it's good to putt out and get out of the way. It's amazing how the little things can add up to big time savings when extrapolated over 18 holes. Thanks for calling attention to this important topic.

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The problem just keeps on marching. I have belonged to private clubs for over 20 years, last year I quit that. The problem we had was the managers were scared to upset the members whether they be older or just not good at the game. So the rest of us just sat behind them watching for an hour longer than posted time.
Since that time I am playing at courses probably not as "nice" but can always get a round in less that four hours, no problem. They are "patrolled" by kind but frank employees that I appreciate. Slow play should not be accepted at any level of the game.

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Amen brother. Sub 4 hour rounds are great. Nothing like a good sense of rhythm to help the game. A fact many playing today do not realize.

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As a member of a private course we play on Wednesdays and Fridays at noon. We have a 4 or 5 in a group and can play around 3 to 3 1/2 hours. We have around 15 total players and are sitting in the bar paying our bets or getting paid by 4 o'clock. We do use carts. At times a group or two get in front of us and sometimes we have to wait then call the pro shop and they come out to tell them to step aside. If you can't play in less than 4 hours you are wasting time. Most of us are 10 or less handicap players. Time is why I don't play local tournaments they are 5 hour + rounds.

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i know of a person that used to weight until he arrived at his golf ball for the next short to the green and then get the yardage wind direction and slope and took forever to hit his next short. i suggested to him why not try to start figuring all this information out on the way to the ball as i do so when i arrive at my ball i usually know all the information i need and what club to use. he does this now and has made a big difference and his game has not suffered at all. hope this will help other slow players out.

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Slow play and golf’s future: a view from the caddie yard