I want to begin this column with a statement of fact: Slow play in golf is not Patrick Cantlay’s fault.
The problem did not begin with him, nor would forcing him to play faster magically fix things. Cantlay is playing within an established set of norms, and obviously doing it well. If you told most professional golfers they could rise to No. 4 in the world by playing at tortoise speed, they would gladly take that trade off. Cantlay has found an approach that works for him, and used it to become one of the best golfers in the world.
From his perspective, I can see why he has no incentive to change. In fact, it seems clear Cantlay doesn’t believe slow play is an actual problem.
“One thing that's interesting sitting on the (player advisory council) is you get all the numbers and the data, and rounds have taken about the same length of time for the last 10 or 20 years that they currently take,” Cantlay told reporters this week at the RBC Heritage. “When you play a golf course like Augusta National where all the hole locations are on lots of slope and the greens are really fast, it's just going to take longer and longer to hole out.”
Is Cantlay wrong? I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it the last few days. My initial reaction is of course he’s wrong. Professional golf has become so plodding and methodical, most tournaments this spring haven’t been able to finalize their cut on Friday, with the second round now regularly finishing on Saturday morning. But the complicated answer is more nuanced, which makes potential solutions hard to propose.
Let’s start with a thought experiment: Why does slow play matter?
It certainly matters to most weekend hackers. There is nothing more maddening than being jammed behind a foursome in carts that won’t wave you through and makes you wait on every tee while they take 15 practice swings in the fairway. But that’s not professional golf. Equating the two, which people frequently do, is unfair. Why should I care if Cantlay spends three minutes reading a putt, or dithering over club selection from the fairway, when a television producer can just cut to someone else while he goes through his meticulous routine?
It’s because playing fast ought to be a skill.
Andy Johnson of The Fried Egg made a great argument about slow play years ago that has always stuck with me: How quickly an athlete can process a situation and make a decision is part of what determines athletic greatness. Every quarterback who experienced success in college could likely experience it in the NFL if they had an unlimited amount of time to break down a defense. The best quarterbacks can process information almost immediately, then determine where they want to go with the football. That's the difference.
Similarly, being forced to make hard decisions in a window of time similar to your competitors should be part of professional golf.
Brooks Koepka certainly feels that way. I walked with Koepka and Jon Rahm on Sunday at the Masters, and watching Brooks stew as he was forced to wait on every shot inspired the most sympathy I’ve felt for him in years. Koepka, no shrinking violet when it comes to sharing his thoughts, did not shy away from making his displeasure clear in his post-round press conference.
“The group in front of us was brutally slow,” Koepka said. “Jon went to the bathroom like seven times during the round, and we were still waiting.”
Asked about Koepka’s comments while he was prepping for the RBC Heritage on Tuesday, Cantlay suggested that everyone was slow, not just his group.
“We got on the second tee and the group in front of us was on the second tee when we got there,” Cantlay told Golf Channel’s Kira Dixon. “The final group was there when we were on the second tee. We waited all day. Our group waited in 15 fairway; our group waited in 18 fairway. I think it was slow for everyone.”
It’s true that Cantlay and Viktor Hovland had to wait at times during their final round. But I’m not sure Cantlay’s framing tells the full story. Hovland was clearly trying to pick up the pace of the group and seemed like he’d had enough of Cantlay late in the round. Cameras spotted Hovland chipping onto the 13th green before Cantlay had even crossed Rae’s Creek, a minor violation of unspoken golf etiquette but a major indicator that even the jovial Hovland was fed up. On other holes, you could see Hovland walking down the left side of the fairway at the edge of the frame while Cantlay was still addressing the ball.
Slow players rarely think they’re slow, which is part of the problem. Even the fast players — like Koepka or Rory McIlroy — don’t want to rush to the next tee just to sit and wait. But they are held hostage by the slow players, who think everyone else is as deliberate as they are, so they have no incentive to change.
From a fan’s perspective, I feel like we’re ticking closer to an eruption, and Cantlay is the flash point for people’s frustrations. Check out this tweet from Golf.com writer Claire Rodgers, who spotted the growing unrest in Cantlay’s mentions. That simmering criticism isn’t a media creation.
If you concede that slow play is a problem, then what’s the solution? That’s where it gets complicated. It’s not as simple as demanding Cantlay speed up. Players, for the most part, don’t agree with Koepka. Or if they do, they don't seem to be demanding change, either from their peers or from rules officials. Fast players mostly seem resigned to their fate.
It used to be standard that players in twosomes were expected to get around in under four hours, even in majors. When they didn’t, they were put on the clock, warned, and threatened with a penalty. Jack Nicklaus was a notoriously slow player when he joined the PGA Tour, regularly falling behind the group ahead of him. But in 1962, he was hit with a slow play penalty in the Portland Open, and the embarrassment of it forced him to play faster. He eventually called that penalty one of the best things to happen to him. “They wouldn’t give you a slow-play penalty if you weren’t slow,” Nicklaus said.
These days, twosomes regularly flirt with (and exceed) five-hour rounds. During the Open Championship at St. Andrews in 2022, rounds were surpassing six hours. Some of that can be attributed to the Old Course, it's tricky hole locations and its long waits as players drive greens and reach par 5's. But not all of it. At The Players Championship, average rounds were between 4:55 and 5:30, and chief referee Gary Young said he didn’t think it was an issue, that it was in line with the Tour’s expectations.
“We're a membership organization,” Young said. “We try to maximize the starts for our members. That's always been a priority, and we just understand that we will, unfortunately, have to finish sometimes on Saturday morning. That's just the way it is. The numbers are the numbers. It's a mathematical equation. You can figure it out.”
Young’s comments have merit, but he was conflating field size with slow play. Even on the weekends, after the cut reduces the field in half, players are still glacially slow.
And therein lies the problem: Modern rules officials can only enforce the rules that are on the books. Players aren’t expected to complete their rounds in a certain amount of time, they’re expected to maintain their position on the golf course. When they fall out of position, they’re put on the clock, and have 40 seconds to hit their next shot once it is their turn to play. For the most part, they magically speed up and get back in position. As long as they’re in position, it doesn’t matter how slow they are.
Rules officials also seem reluctant to use the power they have to force players to change. In 2013, there were two slow-play penalties handed out in majors, one to 14-year-old Tianlang Guan at the Masters, and another to Hideki Matsuyama at the Open Championship. Since then, just one player — John Catlin at the 2021 PGA Championship — has been hit with a slow play penalty in the last 10 years at a major. That’s almost 20,000 rounds of golf played with ONE slow play penalty.
It’s hard, though, to come up with a solution, particularly with so much money at stake in every tournament. One player asking for a ruling, or one walk back to the tee after a ball finishes a foot out of bounds, has a domino effect that grinds the entire wave to a halt. As long as humans are involved, those slow downs are impossible to avoid. This video about traffic does an excellent job of explaining the phenomenon.
Doing nothing because the issue is difficult isn’t a reasonable position either. Some of the objections raised in golf are similar to the resistance that baseball faced when it tried to speed up the game, and implementing the pitch clock this year has cut down tremendously on the fidgeting and histrionics between pitches. I don’t think a standard shot clock would work for golf, but players clearly aren’t interested in policing themselves, particularly on the PGA Tour. The majors ought to draw a clear line and not leave so much of it up to a vague interpretation that clearly favors a certain class of players.
Maybe golf should view the time allotted to a group the way it’s viewed in competitive chess. You have a finite amount of time, and you may use it as you choose. But if you take longer on some turns, you need to take less on others.
There would likely be a player revolt, but as Cantlay joked years ago on a hot mic in Hawaii: Players can sometimes be pampered. It might be time for some tough love.
Kevin Van Valkenburg is the Editorial Director of No Laying Up.
Email him at email@example.com