WARNING! Slow Play Penalty Ahead - Take this True/False Test

By: Nancy Berkley

The controversial semifinal match on May 20th between Morgan Pressel and Azahara Munoz in the LPGA's Sybase Match Play Championship continues to be a topic of discussion. Pressel is a seven-year veteran of the LPGA Tour, but she may have lost the championship because of the slow-play penalty she received on the 12th hole of the match. Munoz, though only a couple of seasons on the Tour, probably had more personal experience with her own slow play, and in my opinion, that may have given Munoz the edge.

Discussion of the controversy focused on whether or not Doug Brecht, an experienced LPGA Tour official, penalized Pressel correctly for slow play. The penalty cost Pressel loss of hole and her momentum in the match. Others suggest that the LPGA policy regarding slow play should be revisited and revised. Opinions from golf writers and observers about Brecht's ruling are generally split. Read the view by Ron Sirak, Senior Editor of the weekly Golf World magazine, who upholds the penalty decision at http://www.golfdigest.com/golf-tours-news/2012-05/gwar-ron-sirak-final-say-0521. And then compare it to that of Stina Sternberg, editor of woman's golf on golfdigest.com at http://www.golfdigest.com/golf-digest-woman/blogs/golf-digest-woman/2012/05/lpga-throws-the-baby-out-with.html.

Slow play was already making news before Sybase. John Paul Newport had written an article for the Wall Street Journal a week earlier entitled, "Golf's Worst Enemy Rears Its Head," which was all about slow play on the PGA Tour. No one could have guessed that a week later the focus would be on the LPGA Tour's Sybase Championship. And, with the Shoprite LPGA Classic (June 1-3) and the LPGA Wegman's Championship (June 7-10) plus the U.S. Open coming up in just a few weeks at the Olympic Club in San Francisco and the U.S. Women's Open at Black Wolf Run in Kohler, Wis., in early July, slow play is certain to continue making news.

So what's your opinion? To begin: Test your knowledge of the slow play rules. Take this simple true-false test: 1. Even if only one player in a group - whether a twosome, threesome or foursome - is the slow player and probably responsible for the whole group falling behind, the entire group is deemed to be "slow" and subject to further action.

2. In order for a group to be put "on the clock" the group must be in violation of two rules: (1) They have violated "time par" - the amount of time allocated to the play of each hole, which is customized for each course and takes into account playing conditions; and (2) The group must be "out of position" -there is too much space between them and the group in front of them.

3. Once a group is notified that they are "on the clock" and being timed, all players in the group are timed and must adhere to the slow-play time rules - even if it is obvious that only one player is responsible for the whole group's slow pace of play.

4. The LPGA Tour, PGA Tour and USGA have different policies for when penalties are given for slow play.

5. The penalties for slow play in match play and stroke play are different.

6. Morgan Pressel has never been penalized for violating the LPGA's slow-play rules.

7. Although each rules official tries to be consistent in their interpretation of the slow-play rules, there may be different applications of the rules among different officials; in other words, there is room for some discretion.

8. Playing with a golfer that plays very slowly can affect other golfers because the waiting around forces other players to change their regular tempo and can mess up their game.

9. Both Pressel and Munoz demonstrated admirable behavior in their post-tournament interviews and upheld the honor of the game and its rules.

10. LPGA Commissioner Michael Whan will review the Sybase Championship and current slow-play policy of the LPGA Tour and make changes if necessary.

If you answered "true" to all of the above, you are correct. You even might consider changing careers to become a golf rules official!

Here's the background. On Sunday, May 20th, Pressel and Munoz, who had each won their four previous matches, were paired in one of the two semifinals in the LPGA Sybase Championship. The winner of the match would play the winner of the match between Vicki Hurst and Candie Kung. The Sybase is the only LPGA tournament that uses a match-play format. The winner of the final match earns a hefty sum of $375,000, one of the largest on the tour.

An unusual feature of the Sybase is the way pairings are determined. Ordinarily, in a field of 64 players and 32 matches, the first match would be between the player ranked No. 1 and player ranked 64th, with No. 2 against 63, and so on. But both last year and this year, the Sybase pairings were determined in what Whan described as a "draw party."

For the Sybase, the top 32 LPGA money-winners picked their opponents by randomly drawing from a bowl a golf ball each with the name of the 33rd- through 64th-ranked players. As explained by Whan, last year's Sybase draw party was fun for the players so he tried it in 2012. The players appeared to welcome the chance to play with someone they might not otherwise oppose. I've interviewed the commissioner several times and he is like a mother hen. He prides himself on sustaining a healthy camaraderie among his players.

This year's draw-party pairings produced some unexpected results. No. 1-ranked Yani Tseng, the LPGA's top money-winner, lost her match in an earlier round as did last year's Sybase champion, Suzann Pettersen. Match play can be unpredictable.

What makes match play unique is that each hole is its own contest. In match play, a player can fall apart on a single hole and just lose just that one hole to the opponent. For some players, losing a hole is much easier to handle than adding 10 strokes to the total score as in stroke play. In fact, it's possible that the winner of a match-play event can take more total strokes over 18 holes than an opponent.

Also in match play, if you lose a match, you're out of the tournament, thus creating an intensity that begins with the very first tee shot. As you can guess, some golfers have a preference for match play, while others prefer stroke play as every golfer handles intensity and anxiety differently in competition.

On the ninth hole, both Pressel and Munoz were approached by an LPGA Tour official and told their match was proceeding too slowly. The official did not blame either player. This was a casual warning and most observers of the match, including Munoz herself, reported that Munoz was the slower player. TV reporter Judy Rankin said in a post-round interview that she thought that by the eighth hole, the match was already proceeding too slowly.

Two things have to happen before an official determines a group is entering the slow-play zone and potentially violating the rules. One is they are violating "time par" - the length of time officials have determined each hole should take to play - which is customized for each golf course. According to reports, the Pressel-Munoz match was about eight minutes behind time par on the 12th tee of their match.

The second condition that puts you in slow-play jeopardy is if the players are "out of position," meaning they are not keeping up with the group in front of them, which on this day was the Kung-Hurst semifinal. I can't confirm how far behind the Pressel-Munoz match was, but I have to assume they were farther behind then they should have been.

Should pace-of-play rules be different for match play? And, here's where there has been quite a bit of controversy because on that Sunday there were only two twosomes on the course - only two matches. Some commentators (Sternberg, for example) argued that the "out of position" rules just shouldn't apply to a match-play round like this. After all, they weren't holding up a field of players behind them. There was no one behind them.

But let's go back to that No. 8 true/false question. There are slow-play rules not only because TV can't handle five-hour rounds or that golf looks too slow and boring and gives the game a bad reputation. Slow players are annoying and, most importantly, can mess up the games of fellow competitors. When I play a competitive match I intentionally avoid watching the slow pre-shot routine of my competitor. It throws my tempo off.

So my answer to whether or not final rounds of match-play competition should be held to slow-play rules and penalties is an unqualified "Yes." Slow play isn't fair to anyone anytime during any competition. And I support the application of the slow-play rule in this Pressel-Munoz match. I agree with Sirak.

Back to the match: By the 11th hole, Brecht had determined the Pressel-Munoz match met both criteria for enforcing the LPGA's slow-play rules. On the 12th tee, Brecht officially told both players they were "on the clock." Under LPGA rules, each player would now be timed.

Although Pressel has said in interviews this wasn't fair because it was Munoz that had slowed them down, Pressel knows the rules. Each player in the group is timed once a group is subject to the slow-play rules regardless of who is playing slowly. Although it may seem unfair to punish fast players in a group for the dilly-dallying of others, it would not be practical to officially time every player on the course to determine who is really holding up play. And, it's possible that one player is slow on one hole, while another player is slow on another hole.

So, in my opinion putting the whole group on the clock is a fair and practical solution. Remember, every group plays only as fast as its slowest player.

There are different policies for different tours. What happened in the Pressel-Munoz match on the LPGA Tour differs from the PGA Tour and USGA. (Hope you said "true" to question 4.) The slow-play policy of the LPGA is much stricter than that of the others.

Under LPGA rules, once a group is put on the clock, if any player does not play the hole within the allotted time that slow player is given a penalty at the end of the hole. There is no second "warning." (That's what happened in the Pressel-Munoz match.) In contrast, under the PGA Tour and USGA rules, if a player has been put on the clock and again violates the slow-play rules, a second "warning" is issued but no penalty. A penalty is only given if the player continues to play slowly.

Another major difference between the tour penalties is that the LPGA times its players differently than the others. The LPGA slow-play policy stipulates that a player may not take more than 30 seconds for each shot with an additional 10-second grace period. The time is "accumulated," which means that on a par-3, for example, where a player takes three shots, she has a total of 100 seconds to complete the hole (30 x 3 + 10 =100). If the player took 50 seconds on one shot but hit very quickly on the others such that she holed out within 100 seconds start to finish, she would not be penalized. Most importantly, under the LPGA rules, whether or not a player on the clock played too slowly on a hole can only be determined when the player has completed the hole.

Rules for slow play on the PGA Tour and USGA tournaments differ. Under their policies a player may take no more than 40 seconds on any one shot plus a 20-second grace period. But unlike the LPGA, there is no total accumulation of time.

For example, if a PGA Tour player was on the clock and took 50 seconds for a shot in the fairway, he would incur a penalty at that point on the hole. On the other hand, if on a par-3 he required three shots to hole-out, he would actually have 140 seconds to play the shots (40 x 3 + 20 = 140) compared to the 120 seconds an LPGA player would be allowed.

The LPGA slow-play policy is designed to ensure faster rounds. The LPGA pace-of-play rules allow less time for players to take practice swings, change clubs, line up shots, etc. In fact, several slow-play penalties were handed out last season to LPGA players. It will come as no surprise that the PGA Tour has not issued a slow-play penalty in years.

I know the next question. When does the timing of a player begin for each shot? According to a USGA rules expert I spoke with, the general understanding among rules officials for all tours is that the "clock" starts ticking when the player selects his or her club. Timing continues during practice swings and stops when the player hits the ball. Rules officials all carry stop-watches.

The slow-play experiences of Pressel and Munoz make a difference. In my opinion, what happened next on the 12th hole of the Pressel-Munoz match is very much a factor of the personal experiences of the two. Munoz admits to being a slow and deliberate player. My guess is that when she learned she was on the clock, she knew how to speed up her game - to walk faster, select clubs faster, take fewer practice swings, and so on. My guess is if her caddie had worked for her regularly, he, too, would know how to speed her up. In fact, after the match, Munoz said in an interview, "I was slow before, but not when the clock was on and that's when you can't be slow."

In contrast, Pressel is not a slow player and has never been penalized for slow play in her seven years on the Tour. My guess is that she was less familiar with how to speed up her game as she may never have played "on the clock" before.

We are now on the 12th tee and Pressel is 2-up. Although knowing she was on the clock there was no obvious change in Pressel's routine or tempo. She took several practice swings, deliberated between clubs because of changing wind conditions and went back to her bag for a different club. That's not uncommon for any player, but she knew she was on the clock! Was her caddie quick with advice or slow? Did Brecht include that walking-back-to-the-bag time?

Is it possible that other rules officials might have timed Pressel differently on the 12th hole? Perhaps, but I have to assume that Brecht timed Pressel exactly as he times all players on the clock. I also assume he timed her from the time she took her first practice swings to the time she teed off.

Pressel's tee shot landed short of the green leaving a slight hill between her ball and the green. As she approached her ball, did Brecht start timing then? After looking at her ball and the lie, Pressel decided she needed to walk up to see the green in order to plan the shot. Did Brecht stop his watch as Pressel checked out her approach shot to the green?

As I watched the match on TV, Pressel did not appear to walk up that hill quickly. In fact, Rankin commented that she didn't look like a player who knew she was on the clock. That's not a surprise because, as mentioned, Pressel has never received a slow-play penalty and never had to beat the clock.

Unlike Munoz, who probably has a fast-play strategy, Pressel has never needed one. At least until this match.

In retrospect, Pressel probably should not have gone to her ball first to check out its lie on the hill. Instead she should have walked directly up to the green - quickly. The rules official probably could not have started timing her because she wouldn't even be at her ball, bag or club. And, then she should have quickly returned to her bag, selected a club and swung. She's on the clock! And her caddie might have even walked up that hill himself to check out the green in order to have advice ready.

Pressel made a great pitch shot and one-putted for a par, while Munoz bogeyed. Pressel thought she had won the hole and was now 3-up. But that's not how the story ends.

The penalties for slow play are different for match play and stroke play. Having timed Pressel's three shots on the 12th, Brecht approached Pressel after both players had finished the hole, and told her that she was 29 seconds over her allotted 100 seconds allowed under the LPGA slow-play policy. Since this was match play, the penalty under the rules was loss of the hole, which put her back to only 1-up.

With great politeness, Pressel said, "Thank you" to Brecht, and moved on to the next tee. She had approached the 12th 2-up, made par and won the hole for what she thought would be a 3-up lead. But now she was heading to the 13th tee 1-up with six to play. Pressel appealed the penalty, but it was denied.

If the Pressel-Munoz match had been stroke play and Pressel was on the clock and then took more time than was allowed, she would have just been penalized a stroke. Her par would have become a bogey and she would have remained 2-up. Match play penalties are tougher, though.

Could Pressel have pulled herself together on the 13th and won the match? Perhaps. She's a great player, and is also a great ambassador for the game. She's the champion of the LPGA-USGA Girls Golf Program. She still belongs to Banyan Golf Club in West Palm Beach, Fla., a private club I also belong to. I have watched her play from her junior days to her championship form today. Her charity, the Morgan Pressel Foundation in support of breast cancer early detection and in memory of her mother, will be our Banyan women's charity day this coming season. Morgan is generous in many ways that the LPGA can be very proud of.

Pressel and Munoz behaved admirably under unexpectedly strained circumstances. To Morgan's credit, she gave a post-round interview to the Golf Channel - something she did not have to do. She was gracious in defeat and congratulatory to her friend Azahara, who defeated Kung in the championship match to win the title. Morgan played her consolation match against Hurst and won, earning third place and $150,000.

Munoz was gracious in victory, but obviously saddened - yes, a few tears also - how the incident caused Pressel, one of her best LPGA friends, to be penalized. I think this slow-play event will be filed under "lessons learned." And I'm certain that Whan has already set up a review of the LPGA slow-play policy.

I have confidence that, although we have not heard any official reports from the LPGA so far about its slow-play policy, that we will hear an official response from the commissioner. The current LPGA slow-play policy is over five years old and was not drafted under his watch. If he thinks it needs revision, it will be revised, especially because he brings a marketing background to his role.

There's a difference of opinion as to whether Pressel's penalty brought the LPGA good or bad publicity. Some observers think that the incident makes the LPGA look good because it strictly applied the rules and is sending the message to all golfers that pace of play matters. Other observers think the incident is bad publicity for the LPGA because the penalty didn't pass their own "fairness" test and isn't in the spirit of the game.

In my opinion, I think the penalty was appropriate. Perhaps another rules official may have timed Pressel's play differently and maybe there would be a difference of a few seconds that would probably not have changed the outcome. But Pressel, knowing she was on the clock, should have played quicker. In this incident, I respect the decision of Brecht, an experienced LPGA rules official. Like an umpire in baseball, when the ump calls "strike," half the stadium may disagree.

Also in my opinion, I think golf instructors at our public and private courses have to include pace-of-play instruction in their lessons and newsletters and maybe even talk about the Pressel-Munoz match.

With respect to women golfers who are always taking abuse for playing slowly, I advise them to go out on the course by themselves and make sure they can play nine holes in 90 minutes and 18 holes in less than three hours with no mulligans. That's the pace of play they need to establish regardless of how they hit the ball.

And congratulations to all those that scored 100 percent on the true/false test. Now just play more golf and make sure you learn how to speed up your game!

Nancy Berkley, President of Berkley Golf Consulting, is an expert on women's golf and junior-girls golf. She is a frequent contributor to www.cybergolf.com/womensgolf. Her book, "Women Welcome Here! A Guide to Growing Women's Golf," published by the National Golf Foundation, is an industry reference on marketing golf to women and spotting trends within the industry. She offers information and advice about the golf industry on www.berkleygolfconsulting.com and is often quoted in national publications. She was a contributing editor of "Golf for Women" magazine and a founding advisor of "Golfer Girl Magazine." Her interviews with women in the golf industry now appear on www.golfergirlcareers.com. Nancy lives in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., and is a graduate of the University of Minnesota, Harvard University and Rutgers Law School. After a business and legal career, she decided to write about the game she learned and loved as a teenager. She describes herself as a good bogey golfer with permanent potential.