Keep it moving, people.
Even with a less-than-full field, getting 186 teams around three courses in three days and out in time to make that night’s social event at a reasonable hour requires loads of logistical legerdemain.
After too many years of long days drawn into night — especially on Championship Sunday at Anniston Country Club, where the festivities in recent years didn’t conclude until well past dark — tournament officials are keeping a close eye this year on pace of play. Penalties for excessively slow play are a real possibility, they say.
“Speed of play is our No. 1 concern,” tournament committee member Hank Smith said. “It’s the thing we struggle with the most and what we’ll focus on and hope to see some improvement this year.
“There’s no reason we should be leaving the golf course on Sunday at 9 o’clock. We understand rain plays a part in it, but also slow play plays a part. We’re going to keep an eye on it and be as polite as possible asking them to move along. (Penalty strokes) are going to be a last resort. We’ve said that for years. It’s time to follow through with what needs to happen.”
Indeed, stormy weather has been a primary element in prolonging the final round on the final day. It seems every year a thunderstorm cuts loose at the dinner hour just as the contenders are heading to the back nine. That, three-time champion Jeremy McGatha said, “makes it just unbelievably slow,” but he maintains it’s the only thing that makes for the long day.
One year, the tournament played through the remnants of a hurricane when it couldn’t wait any longer. Another year, weather reduced the final round to nine holes for the teams playing at Silver Lakes. In another instance, the delay was so long, the tournament finished in the dark, forcing the cancellation of the $25,000 putt and the big-money shots from the fairway.
In a move perhaps designed to appease the weather gods, the player gift this year is an umbrella set.
By the time the bad weather hits Sunday, play already has started falling behind. The formats of play, close quarters on the course and inviting tee boxes that offer the opportunity to drive greens or go for them in 2 bogs down play.
And nobody is going to rush if they’re in the hunt on Sunday playing his own ball, especially in the last five or six holes, where defending champion Ott Chandler said the tournament is won or lost. In fact, players have said when you’re in that moment, time doesn’t lag, but they’ve described the feeling when you’re not in the hunt and have to wait as “excruciating.”
“People play slower on Sunday,” defending champion Marcus Harrell said. “The people in the final four groups, they definitely take their time.”
“(Tournament officials) do a good job of putting marshals out there,” five-time champion Randy Reaves said, “but you’ve got so many people on that course and it’s just not designed (for it).”
It doesn’t seem to be an issue with the higher handicap players, who have been said to generally get around at a good clip even though they are hitting more shots.
But logjams are not just confined to ACC on Sunday. They will occur in the modified scramble at Cider Ridge and, predictably, the scramble at Pine Hill, which returns to the Classic rota as an emergency starter after the April 27 tornadoes devastated Silver Lakes.
Event organizers have implemented several policies to help keep play moving at all venues.
They will set a time par for all teams and take measures to uphold it. They have asked the shorter holes on the courses to be played farther back off the tee and pins across the board to be placed in “more favorable” locations. Forecaddies will be positioned at the blind spots on all three golf courses to give players the all-clear signal to hit or help them locate errant shots. The places most likely impacted are Nos. 6, 9 and 12 at Pine Hill, No. 16 at Cider Ridge and between Nos. 6 and 7 at the Country Club.
The most noticeable solution to moving play along will come at No. 3 at ACC. Once players reach the green, they’ll be asked to mark their position and step aside to allow the group behind them to hit up. Somewhere between those two sets of shots, the players on the par-3 fourth will hit their tee shots.
“The reality is there are some areas we can’t do anything about,” Smith said. “We hope the players take the initiative (to move along).”
Al Muskewitz covers golf for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.