The USGA has been studying pace of play extensively and sharing results at their Symposium. They are amassing data that promises to help course operators improve “flow”. Additionally, technological innovations like smart flags, GPS-enabled carts, and others will track players and help them keep the pace.
These initiatives may very well help, and I applaud the USGA for doing what it can. Unfortunately, they strike me as unlikely to solve the problem of slow play because they don’t address the core problem – motives and behavior of course operators and players.
In my career, I have learned quite a bit about motives and behavior from my colleagues and customers. Several basic truths have emerged for me:
1. Most people – customers and coworkers – have good intentions and are doing their best. They have moments when they fall short, just as I do. But even in those moments of carelessness, ignorance, or selfishness, they are not bad people. They are imperfect, like we all are.
2. Every person does a better job if they are clear on expectations and ground rules. Especially when those ground rules are based on the principle of providing maximum benefit to all stakeholders.
3. A small percentage of people just don’t “get it”. Whether they are too ignorant, selfish, or stubborn, they simply can’t or won’t play by the ground rules and contribute to the success of the whole. Upon identifying people like this, it is always best to fire them as quickly as possible, whether they are coworkers, vendors, or even customers. They are a drag on the business, and not taking action to remove them will quickly start to degrade one’s ability to be of service to the good people.
Over decades of managing people, customer relationships, and companies, I have experienced very few (if any) exceptions to these 3 truths.
What does that have to do with pace of play? Let’s return to my assertion about the core problem – people – using my experience with a favorite course of mine, Arcadia Bluffs, to illustrate.
Arcadia Bluffs is a really neat and challenging golf course on one of the most beautiful settings you’ll find, overlooking Lake Michigan. The staff is great, and the service is first class. I have a home 10 minutes from the course, and I have played it many times.
I have also brought quite a few friends to play there. They have all appreciated the beauty of the course, but most of them never want to go back. Why? Because it takes at least 4:45 to play a round, and often upwards of 5:15. Arcadia Bluffs is losing customers because of slow play, and not just among my golf buddies. In speaking to people about it, it is clear that Arcadia has a bad reputation for pace of play that keeps people away. That is bad for business, and Arcadia Bluffs is certainly not alone.
What can they do about it?
They can use data from the emerging technology and the USGA studies to improve flow on their course. They should not just try to maximize rounds to maximize profits. They should schedule the maximum number of rounds appropriate for their course (based on its difficulty and routing), and then actively manage bottlenecks. This is a no-brainer, and they are probably already working on it. It will help a little, but it won’t solve the problem.
To truly solve the problem, they also have to manage their players more proactively and effectively. Currently, they try to do this by having the starter give a pace-of-play speech on the first tee, and by having rangers on the course. This is obviously not working currently, and here is why:
The starter speechifies you to play at a decent pace, but doesn’t tell you how. The rangers may tell you to play faster, but they don’t tell you how. Based on the first two truths above, this means that people who would like to behave properly might not because they don’t know how. They are therefore more likely to “have moments”. It doesn’t take many of those moments to ruin pace for a whole day.
What the starter could do instead is lay out some specific expectations (local rules) for how to keep pace up. Here are a few examples from my buddies groups:
- Play ready golf, obviously.
- The entire group plays from the tees that are appropriate for the highest handicapper.
- Look for a lost ball for no more than 2 minutes – can’t find it, drop.
- If you chip/pitch twice and you’re not on the green, you’re done.
- If you putt twice and you’re not in the hole, you’re done.
- Single-digit handicappers don’t hit the ball more times than par+2. Double-digit handicappers, no more than double-par.
We play matches and we still use these rules. Don’t like ’em? Find someone else to play with. Do they work? We were the first group off at Old MacDonald last fall and got around in 3:30. Needless to say, the group behind us was not keeping up.
If the starter and rangers at Arcadia Bluffs provided coaching on these rules, the good people will be more likely to respond. Setting these expectations, and then coaching to them, also allows Arcadia to deal effectively with the “don’t/won’t get it” crowd.
If the pace of these players remains slow, and they refuse to change their behavior, Arcadia Bluffs needs to fire them for the good of every other player on the course. They have to proactively defend the pace. In practice, this means that the slow-pokes need to be given their money back and asked never to come back, mid-round if need be.
To service industry professionals, this might sound crazy. To ignorant and/or inconsiderate golfers, it likely seems offensive because they think that having money in hand means that they are buying carte blanche. But here is why it is necessary if Arcadia Bluffs really wants to fix pace of play and its reputation, and make its business continue to thrive in the long run:
All other things being equal, slow pace makes every golf experience worse relative to smooth, brisk pace. Every time a golfer has to wait (regardless of their personal pace of play), they are unhappy. In turn, they are less likely to come back.
Conversely, if I knew that Arcadia Bluffs was willing to fire “bad customers” to enhance the experience of good customers, I would a) be more likely to return, and b) drag my buddies. Further, especially in the digital age with this issue so prevalent, it is hard to imagine something more likely to create buzz for a course than kicking chronically slow players to the curb.
So keep doing the studies and keep working on the technology, and keep up the “While We’re Young!” campaigns to raise awareness. But I beseech you Arcadia Bluffs and other course operators, give us your ground rules for how to keep the pace, and then fire the people who can’t or won’t. I promise you that the rest of your customers will celebrate you for it, and to steal another Al Czervik quote, we’ll “make it worth your while.”