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The Slow Motion Ballet on the GreensTour

By John M. Ross,
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Speeding up play begins on the greens. (PGA of America)

The four warriors moved slowly through the men's grill, perspiring, leg-weary, complaining. The barkeep, moving with alacrity, had the beer flowing instantly.

"We were just getting ready to send a search party out for you," he joked.

"Can you beat this," Chuck roared, looking at his watch, "over four-and-a-half hours to play a round of golf. Unbelievable!"

"And we were moving faster than most of them," another chipped in, "right on the heels of the guys ahead of us."

"It's all that time on the greens, all that slow-motion ballet," Chuck got back in. "All that ball-marking and cleaning and strutting around. That's where the time is wasted. And they'd better do something about it before it ruins the game."

"Right on," Jeff chipped in. "These young guys with kids can't handle it. That's a big chunk out of the day."

"I've been telling everyone for years that the rules should be changed," Chuck went on. "I even wrote a note to the USGA about it, but here we are, still marking and cleaning the ball, staring at putt lines, and spending half the time on the greens. It isn't right."

Someone asked Chuck what he would change.

"It's simple. Go back to the way the game was intended to be played. There was a time when once you teed off you didn't touch the ball until the match was over. Then they relented somewhat and let you pick it up on the green if the ball had mud or some foreign matter on it. That made sense. Now, everybody cleans the ball, marks it, and tees it up again for the putt. Maybe we should go back to the stymie, when you didn't touch or move the ball for any reason!""They'd never go back to that. It took years of complaining before they changed it," Jeff chimed in.

"But if the green is where the time is being wasted, radical changes have to be made," Chuck countered. "The campaign against slow play and some of the fee penalties have them moving along the fairways at a good place; no more dilly-dallying to finish a funny story or give a partner a swing tip, but we still have to take a bold step.

"Here are the changes I'd make. No more picking up and cleaning the ball on the green. If your ball has a mud spot, you clean it only on appeal to your playing partners. Otherwise, you play it as it lies. And I'd have the ball closest to the hole putt first, with the others following in the order of their proximity to the pin."

"Would that be fair?" someone asked. "Wouldn't that be penalizing the player who made the best shot to the green by not letting him go-to-school on the other putts? That doesn't seem right."

"That is a point, but all the studies I've ever seen on the value of checking the line on a preceding putt, indicate that it's overestimated," Chuck said. "The line seldom is precisely the same, and you still have to make the putt."

The last exchange was enough to trigger a broader debate, and even the barkeep, who plays to a 7 himself, joined in. But, overall, they agreed that Chuck was on the right track. Radical changes are in order, and they could reduce the playing time of a round, as he claims, by forty-five minutes to an hour.

There is one point Chuck missed, however. If the price of new golf balls continue to climb, this could have a serious affect on the pace of play. With the cost of a ball ranging now to around $3 a copy, golfers are now spending more time looking for errant shots in the rough. I saw a couple of golfers on their hands and knees in the tall grass the other day, and they looked like a couple of zealous scientists searching for a rare anthropoid. But, then again, at $3 a pop, I'd look, too.

And you can bet the caddies are also looking at sunset!

The Pine Valley Golf Course in New Jersey, rated by many as America's best test of golf, has fallen from its lofty perch, according to the new poll by Golf Digest. Pebble Beach, another huge favorite, has moved into the position of honor, dropping Pine Valley back to second place.

Pine Valley had occupied the top spot of "America's 100 Greatest Golf Courses" since the magazine started the biennial poll in 1985. More than 800 panelists are involved in the ratings.

Pebble Beach, the jewel of the Monterey Peninsula's golf Mecca in California, made a jump from third place, also leaping over the prestigious Augusta National, site of the Masters.

Considering how Tiger Woods almost made it look like a pitch-and-putt course in last year's U.S. Open, it must be at the top of his list, too.

Scott Hoch had gone 94 tournaments on the PGA Tour without a win, and at the start of the final round of the recent Greensboro classic he was leading by one shot. But, strangely, he felt a bit listless, and his game had no spark. He would tell an intimate later, it was then that he decided he would have a talk with his old friend, Payne Stewart, and ask for his help. Stewart was killed in a plane crash in October, 1999.

"I asked him to help us get through the day," Hoch, who also uses Stewart's caddie on his bag, recalled. "And I really felt that he was out there with us, and that he heard me."

The 45-year-old Hoch plodded along with pars on the first six holes before he finally got his first birdie on No. 7. Then, turning for home, and with at least a half dozen players within easy range of his lead, something changed.

"I was beginning to get a little down, but suddenly a calmness came over me," he tells. "I don't know what it was, but something just turned me around."

Tears rolled down his cheeks as he spoke, and it was apparent that he felt his old pal, Payne, had joined him and his caddie for the final steps of the journey.

He birdied three of the first five holes on the backside, including a sand save from 8 feet. He had a bogey on the final hole, but it didn't matter. He finished with a shot to spare and won $630,000, the biggest check of his long career.

Tour players have been heard to shrug off life on the circuit as "just another day at the office" or ridicule the stress with "it's just a game, after all." Scott Hoch's moving experience at Greensboro, and his willingness to talk about it, provides a different perspective.

(c) Copyright John M. Ross

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