Commentary

There's a need for speed on PGA Tour

Originally Published: March 24, 2011
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

ORLANDO, Fla. -- In the time it takes Kevin Na to hit a putt you can watch Seasons 1-6 of "Lost." You can see your fingernails grow. You can retrace the voyages of Magellan.

I don't know if Na is the slowest player in professional golf, but according to one PGA Tour rules official I spoke with Thursday, he's in the Final Four of pokiness. Na is so slow that snails ask if they can play through.

Time doesn't stand still when Na plays; it goes backward. The only thing brief about him is his last name.

If the tour is wondering why viewers sometimes nod off during telecasts, or why you can measure round times with sundials, Na is Exhibit A. And if the tour doesn't do something about him -- and others like him -- you're going to have to buy a day/night pass to watch a tournament.

I spent a numbing 4 hours and 46 minutes following the threesome of Na, Chad Campbell and Paul Goydos during the first round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational. They teed off at 7:52 a.m. and completed their round at 12:38 p.m. At 12:39 I chugged battery acid.

[+] EnlargeKevin Na
Harry How/Getty ImagesKevin Na's caddie plumb bobs with a wedge during their putting routine to make an already long process even longer.

Only one threesome teed off before them -- not that we ever saw it. Na & Co. never had to wait to hit a shot, were never slowed by any official rulings and had only one instance when a player (Goydos) dunked a shot in the water and had to drop. And it still took nearly FIVE HOURS!

It's not that the tour isn't aware it has a pace-of-play issue. Every pro on the Bay Hill driving range knows that Na moves slower than frozen maple syrup. And he isn't the only guy who is speed-challenged.

You could build an acropolis in the time it takes J.B. Holmes to finish a round of golf. Webb Simpson and Ben Crane aren't much better. And there others (Campbell had his moments Thursday) who play as if they're being paid by the hour.

"We talk about it every [players] meeting," said tour veteran Pat Perez. "Every meeting we talk about pace of play and we talk about course setup. But it never changes. It's a waste of time to talk about it. People aren't going to change their routine. We're playing for millions of dollars a week out here. Guys are not going to change their routine just to finish. In their mind, they're in no hurry."

Perez plays as if his golf shoes are on fire. He sees ball. He hits ball.

Na sees ball and then contemplates the meaning of life. No golf shot deserves that much attention.

I kept a stopwatch on each of the 74 shots he hit Thursday. I wouldn't start the clock until he got his yardage and pulled a club from his bag for tee shots, iron shots or wedge shots. And I wouldn't press the start button until it was Na's turn to putt and everyone else had marked his ball or finished out.

There's no getting around it though: Na is sloooooooow. By the time the Na threesome reached the eighth tee box, a rules official was there waiting for them.

"Hey, guys, a hole's opened up," said the official. "You're 8 minutes over [the accepted pace of play]."

Gee, what a surprise that an official warning was issued. Na isn't noticeably slower than his partners on most shots -- usually something in the 20-30-second range. It's when his cleats touch the greens that Na pulls the parachute on his pace of play.

Should it take 1 minute and 28 seconds to hit a single putt? It does if you're Na. To watch Na and his caddie, Kenny Harms, obsess over a putt is to watch two bumblebees circle a flower stem.

A typical Na putting routine:

Place ball at marker ... look at line from front ... look at line from back ... pick up ball ... caddie lines up putt ... caddie plumb bobs with wedge ... place ball back at marker ... line up putt ... caddie plumb bobs again ... two practice strokes ... pick up mark and put in right pocket ... two more practice strokes ... putt.

Na is a solid pro. He's ranked No. 62 in the world. He has two top-10 finishes this season and already has won more than $770,000 in 2011. But enough already with the putting passion play. Speed up.

"It's not possible," said Jim Furyk, referring to slow players in general. "There's nothing you can do. And let me tell you why: The only way to speed up play is to reduce the field size. And if you reduce the field size you limit the number of players who have an obligation. And you can't do that."

Fair enough. Except that Arnie's tournament invites only 120 players, not the usual 144 players or 156. So players such as Na can't use field size as an excuse. And while the Bay Hill layout was challenging, it wasn't killer hard on Thursday.

So if tour players could be commissioner for a day, what would they do to hurry the Nas of the world?

"I'd tell them to start handing out strokes," said Bubba Watson, referring to penalty strokes.

"I would put all the slow players last out in the morning and last out in the afternoon on Thursdays and Fridays," said Kenny Perry, who shot 79 and WD'd after the first round. "Now that way -- and I'd put them all together, I'd pair them all together -- they're in the back, they're not going to hold anybody up and they're all going to be together ... Then they're going to get behind and they're going to get on the clock and they're going to have to speed their game up."

Defending champion Ernie Els suggested letting caddies use yardage range finders, shrinking the fields and, if necessary and enforceable, penalizing a player strokes.

"It would never happen," said Perez.

He's probably right. The tour assesses strokes about once every decade or so. It keeps a list of slow play violators, but doesn't make it public. And it doesn't announce fines for anything, including slow play.

So basically there's no incentive to play faster. Na can creep along and not worry about any real penalties. OK, check that -- if a player is put on the tour's slow play clock 10 times during a calendar year, he gets fined $20,000. But we'll never know if it happened.

"I've gotten over the fact of fast, slow, this and that," said Perez. "It's just an unenforceable thing. In the end, everybody finishes."

On the 18th green, Na readied himself for his 5-foot par putt. Line it up ... walk toward the hole ... caddie plumb bob ... mark ball ... two practice strokes ... caddie plumb bob ... caddie line up putt ... pull marker and put in pocket ... line up putt ... two practice strokes ... putt.

And miss by 3½ feet.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here. And don't forget to follow him on Twitter @GenoEspn.

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