Jordan Spieth caught in early crossfire against slow-play scourge
European Tour should be congratulated for tackling issue that affects game on all levels
European Tour chief rules official John Paramor chats with Jordan Spieth on the ninth hole during the first round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship. Photograph: Scott Halleran/Getty Images
One thing more tedious than slow play in golf is people who constantly drone on about the topic.
Which is a shame; aside from broader issues of society and sport, the two aspects which stunt golf’s development above all else are cost and the time a round takes. In this age, we do everything quickly. The concept of spending five hours on a golf course holds little appeal to many.
Last week in Abu Dhabi, the European Tour found itself at the centre of a storm relating to a slow-play warning issued to Jordan Spieth. And that was essentially it: a warning. It was perhaps an indicator of the quest for controversy that this incident blew up so spectacularly.
There were two significant subtexts. Spieth himself, the world’s No 1 player, was one. The other related to fresh “monitoring” powers bestowed upon referees after a three-hour discussion at a players’ committee meeting on Tuesday. It must be remembered that, as a members’ organisation, the Tour is never going to impose heavy sanctions on competitors for slow play. Turkeys and Christmas spring to mind.
And yet, this group is due credit for at least tackling an issue which has seen 20 minutes added to tournament rounds within a relatively short space of time. Taken to a further degree, that can impact on size of field and therefore opportunity for players to compete in certain events. As a spectacle for tournaments, it causes unquestionable harm.
Firstly, to the Spieth case. The 22-year-old readily admitted he took in excess of a minute over a putt on the eighth green but did so deliberately, having checked there was no group waiting behind. That, to many of us, constituted common sense. If not holding anybody up, what’s the problem?
Closer inspection, though, reaches the point that the European Tour are rightly focusing on. The sizeable Abu Dhabi crowd and, pertinently, television audience has no real interest in where Spieth’s group is in relation to others. What they see is a player taking extended time over a shot, a matter which impacts directly on how youngsters – and middle-aged club players in the midst of their Wednesday matches – behave. The message has to resonate that this form of deliberation over golf shots isn’t helpful and, in fact, damages the perception of the game.
People suddenly think taking more than a minute over putts is the norm or even an advantage. It must be, the top guys in the world do it. A glance at any club medal on any given weekend will reveal shades of the same approach. Those medal numbers, meanwhile, struggle because people can’t give up their time.
Whether Spieth, as a visiting player from the United States, should have been pinpointed is an interesting point for debate. The Tour’s chief referee, John Paramor, is about the straightest individual in sport; any sense that he would deliberately target Spieth, thereby sending a message to others, is a flawed one. But inadvertently, this incident could have the effect of making all players realise they are susceptible to warning, or penalty, if they are slow. Which is good news, surely.
The notion that the potential fine, of €2,600, for monitored players who repeat the offence within a tournament won’t actually serve as a deterrent was offset by the attitude of Spieth. He was clearly annoyed to have been caught in this situation; he didn’t want any reputational harm on account of being deemed slow. This irked him, which was pleasing to see.
To his credit, Spieth also took a wholly mature attitude towards the brush with officialdom before departing the Middle East. He had seen no need to seek further talks with Paramor.
“I understand it,” Spieth said. “I was given a rule sheet before the tournament started. Michael [Greller, Spieth’s caddie] was told to make sure that I read it because it’s changed and the policies over here are different.
“With the adjustment in the rules over here, it’s all based on timing. And I understand that I took too long on the shot and I was given a warning, which is exactly what would have happened in the States.
“The positioning [of groups] is what was different from my perspective. So I have nothing to really talk about. I deserved it and it was based on a rule sheet that I was given before the week started. It’s hard for me to understand when you’re back in position with one hole to go, why is it even a factor, but there shouldn’t be any special treatment. I certainly wouldn’t want any, so it is what it is.”
For their part, the Tour isn’t indulging in a money-making exercise or token gesturing. Senior officials have spent time with professionals who have issues with slow play, talking them through pre-shot routines in a bid to help. Sometimes, players simply over-think to the point where they are almost scared to hit shots. More often than not, professionals don’t even realise how slow they are until it is pointed out to them.
Statistics from Abu Dhabi suggest monitoring had a swift impact. In round one, 18 groups were monitored. By rounds two, three and four, that figure had been slashed to eight, four and six, respectively. The message, it seemed, hit home. When Daniel Brooks was issued with a warning on Friday after taking excessive time over a tee shot, he embarked on a run which saw him take 20 seconds or fewer – in one occasion just nine – before hitting.
There are other ways in which golf’s ruling bodies could quicken tournament play. Abu Dhabi is an example of a course with ridiculous rough just a short hop from fairways, which is necessary to keep scoring down because, simply, equipment allows the golf ball to travel far too far. If that scourge was properly looked at, there would be a knock-on effect and courses could be set up differently.
Such matters, though, are beyond the control of the European Tour. On the basis it was rightly criticised time and again for doing nothing to prevent slow play, verging on the unwatchable at times, it is nonsense to castigate them again now. Spieth was unfortunate to be caught in the early crossfire but this is a policy with merit. Good on the Tour for implementing it.