David Livingstone reflects on a highly-successful Florida Swing for three of European golf’s finest, but regrets that the issues of slow play appear to be a long way from being resolved on the PGA Tour.
It’s amazing how a strong Florida Swing, restored by all the thrills and spills of the 17th at Sawgrass, ramps up the race to Augusta National. We’re headed towards Georgia invigorated by Rory’s revival, a Molinari win at Bay Hill and a roar of defiance from Tiger Woods.
Add to that Paul “The Champ” Casey’s superb defence of his title at the Valspar Championship in Tampa and it’s been an incredible European Ryder Cup hat-trick of wins on the PGA Tour.
All of a sudden, the quarterly report on Golf PLC is full of optimism, with a forecast of big dividends throughout the year.
Any negativity from the early part of the season has been brushed aside by Rory vindicating his focus on America and Tiger confounding observers, including myself, who suspect he’s playing on borrowed time.
Memories of Sergio Garcia’s vandalism, Matt Kuchar’s meanness, and golf’s controversial visit to Saudi Arabia are fading fast. And that’s the way it is in sport. We don’t quite forgive and forget, but we welcome fresh excitement and move on from disappointments.
Golfers, in particular, are naturally optimistic and never more so than heading into April and the first Major of the year. I very much share that positive outlook and cannot wait for the Masters, particularly as this is a first for me, watching it on Sky from the comfort of my favourite couch.
My only concern is that the path to those lush, verdant slopes of Augusta National is still sullied by a couple of unrepaired divots.
One of them was even mentioned by Rory McIlroy on his way to victory at Sawgrass when he said slow play had become an “epidemic” on the PGA Tour. It’s painful to return time and again to this but it’s a scandal that golf’s greatest problem continues to be ignored or avoided by the game’s administrators.
The PGA Tour, in particular, seem to be stuck in a commercial “ain’t broke” mentality. They talk about it but don’t say anything. The game’s rule makers, the R&A and USGA, feign concern and fiddle around the edges with minor changes, but sadly, letting players putt with the flag in isn’t going to make much difference.
The European Tour at least tackled the issue over the last couple of years with the introduction of innovative, quickfire events like the GolfSixes and Shot Clock Masters, but in other tournaments, referees are still stuck with archaic rules on how to impose slow-play penalties.
The overall intransigence remains a mystery to anyone genuinely concerned about the image and appeal of golf in a fast-changing world. We need a simple time limit that can be applied to any player at any time regardless of whether his group is “out of position” or “on the clock”.
Also, we need a clear indication of what the majority of professional players want. Some of the most influential players like Rory, Brooks Koepka, Adam Scott, Justin Thomas, and Dustin Johnson say slow play has become unacceptable.
Does no one else agree with them?
Players have the power to control what happens on their respective Tours so let’s see if we can put democracy to work and find out what they want. We certainly know what a good many of them feel about the new rules introduced this year, and that brings me to the second blemish on the path to Augusta.
The three most high-profile rule modifications – restrictions on caddies helping with alignment, knee-high drops, and putting with the flagstick in – have all caused controversy and none of that surprises me. The changes were all well-intentioned but quite obviously open to ridicule. Rickie Fowler’s infamous “toilet drop” was literally an all-time low for golf.
More seriously, the Twitter spat between Justin Thomas and the USGA about clarifying the caddie alignment rule was disgraceful. For Thomas to be called out by an anonymous USGA official for allegedly cancelling meetings – since denied by the player – was a worrying indication of that organisation’s level of general competence.
They demonstrate their disregard for public opinion on an almost annual basis at the US Open, but to patronise one of the game’s most successful and popular players was tellingly arrogant.
Happily, on this side of the Atlantic, the R&A have maintained a dignified silence whilst monitoring the effect of the rule changes. They must wonder why they went to all the bother of a seven-year consultation period only to arrive at new rules which don’t seem to be working.
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In that time, they could have gone for a complete rewrite of the rules, tackling slow play, equipment, ball, no harm no foul, and, most importantly, the use of common sense.
And all this could have been written in beautiful, plain English. Don’t laugh, they did it with the Bible. Why not the Rules of Golf?
In the meantime, let us pray for a brilliant, pulsating Masters where the referees’ only ruling is on Augusta’s egg salad sandwiches.