Updated: May 16, 2012, 11:40 AM ET

Slow play a big problem long before Kevin Na

Harig By Bob Harig
Archive

The biggest story at the PGA Tour's most prestigious tournament turned out to be one that's been an underlying theme in professional golf for years. Slow play remains the topic that the sport's leaders refuse to touch.

Kevin Na only heightened the debate, waggling his way to the final group on Sunday, somehow managing to take the 54-hole lead despite what can only be described as an excruciating preshot routine that left you gasping.

To be fair, Na is traumatized by his struggles to pull the trigger, a relatively new development as he has tried to get comfortable with a swing change. But previous to these troubles, Na had a reputation as a slow player.

He has improved other parts of his game, especially a maddeningly slow routine on the greens, but remains among the turtles on tour. And he's not alone.

Pace of play is often glacial, and while circumstances sometimes can't prevent such possibilities, it can be painful to watch players who are never ready when it is their turn, who incessantly talk to their caddie before every shot, who turn hitting a golf shot into such an ordeal.

Na is certainly not alone. Fast players find that it serves them no purpose to be fast. Slow play rules. And it's not getting any better.

"Worse," said Tiger Woods at the Players. "Last week [at the Wells Fargo], we were playing in 4:40 and there's no wind. That's hard to believe. We've gotten slower on tour. College [golf] has gotten incredibly slow. It's so bad that now we are giving the guys the ability to use lasers [for yardages] to try to speed up play, and they are still 5:45, six hours-plus."

[+] EnlargeKevin Na
Stan Badz/PGA/Getty ImagesKevin Na was heckled by fans and realizes he must change his slow-playing ways. Perhaps the PGA Tour should give him more incentive to do so.

Was it irony or coincidence that PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem was asked about the chronic slow-play problems on the eve of the tournament?

Finchem acknowledged that he doesn't like to wait behind slow players when he plays his friendly game, but that it is a difficult issue to change at the professional tournament level.

"I actually think we might want to experiment with penalty shots," he said. "But I don't think penalty shots make a difference, to be honest with you."

How would he know? The tour has not issued a penalty stroke for slow play in 20 years, before Finchem became commissioner. It has a fine structure in place that includes being out of position (put on the clock) or actual bad times. If a player is on the clock then timed for taking too long (generally more than 40 seconds when it is his turn), he gets a warning. The next time there is a $5,000 fine, and this continues throughout the year, not just the same tournament.

A one-stroke penalty is supposed to be applied for the second bad time in a round, but it never happens.

Woods suggested no warning, a straight one-shot penalty for the first occasion you get a bad time. Obviously, the players know they are on the clock at this point. Why the tour isn't vigilant about this remains a mystery.

There are a few ways the tour could handle slow play:

• Reduce field sizes. The Players had a 144-player field with 12 threesomes teeing off the front and back nine in the morning and afternoon. The first tee time was at 7:15 a.m. on No. 1 and No. 10, with the last tee time on each side at 9:11 a.m. In theory, if you get around in two hours, those teeing off on No. 1 will get to the 10th tee as the last group is in the fairway.

But it never works out that way. Par-5s, with players going for the green in two shots, inevitably cause a wait. Playing nine holes generally takes about 2 hours, 40 minutes. And that means the rounds will lumber on, with players stacked up when they make the turn, waiting for those who have just teed off.

If you cut out one group per side per session -- a total of 12 players -- the field size would be down to 132. Much more manageable, but a place the tour would never want to go.

"We elect not to do that, because as much as we like to see a stronger pace of play, the playing opportunities for the number of players we have had are more important, and we'll generate the playing opportunities first and take our lumps second," Finchem said. "It's as simple as that."

• Impose stroke-play penalties. "People don't realize how valuable one shot out here is," Woods said, explaining that the difference in prize money would result in a far harsher fine -- and the potential loss of a tournament -- and would be a far greater deterrent.

• Announce fines. The PGA Tour does not disclose discipline, except in the case of a failed drug test for performance enhancers. It won't acknowledge if a player was suspended for using recreational drugs, and it won't say if a player has racked up fines for one bad time or 20.

Perhaps this would help. If it announces who the chronic slow-play offenders are, there is bound to be some backlash. These players would be there for all to see. Media would ask them questions about it. There would be true incentive to improve, at least on a public relations front. Nobody wants to be labeled a slow player -- even though almost all of the players, officials and caddies know who they are.

Na's issues are unfortunate, and he seems determined to fix the problem. And yet, many, many times, he is taking more than 40 seconds to play a shot. Is that fair to spectators who are frozen as he stands over the ball? To playing competitors who get thrown out of their rhythm?

"It's not that hard, be ready when it's your turn," Luke Donald tweeted earlier this year while watching a tournament on TV. "Slow play is killing our sport."

Butch Harmon's instructional video

Butch Harmon, who has a lengthy list of top players he has coached over the years, said he has seen just about every significant golfer in person in his life, except for Bob Jones and Walter Hagen. His father, Claude Harmon Sr., won the Masters in 1948 and was friends with many of the game's elite, including Ben Hogan.

Butch Harmon got to see a lot of great golf in his time. His brothers Craig, Billy and Dick (who passed away in 2006) all went on to be instructors as well.

Harmon, 68, said he is finally slowing down. Once his son goes off to college, he's not sure how much he'll be out on tour instructing players anymore, in addition to all of his other interests, which include doing commentary for Sky Sports.

To that end, Harmon put together an instructional DVD called "Butch Harmon About Golf." The nearly four-hour video is "probably the last big thing I'm going to do," he said.

In addition to all of the instructional tips in the video -- and it runs the gamut for beginners and every level of player -- are a number of impressive testimonials.

Harmon said every big-time player he has worked with, except for two-time Masters champion Jose Maria Olazabal -- whose schedule could never be coordinated with the taping process -- participated. That lists includes Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Greg Norman, Adam Scott, Fred Couples and Ernie Els.

Harmon seemed particularly touched that Woods participated, given that their arrangement ended 10 years ago and not in the best of circumstances. Still, it was Harmon who helped take Woods from a teenager to major champion and was Woods' coach for his first eight major wins.

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.

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