How the USGA Determines the Pace of Play

A major obstacle on the golf course is not just a sandpit or rough, but long wait times on each hole. Engineer Matt Pringle at the United States Golf Association explains how improving the pace of play on a golf course is much like trying to control flow rate through a funnel, or traffic on a highway. "Science of Golf" is produced in partnership with the United States Golf Association and Chevron.

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DAN HICKS reporting: Golf is a game of numerous challenges -- choosing the right club, reading the greens, assessing the wind -- important steps that every golfer must take, often leading to another challenge of the game -- long lines at the tee.

PATRICK RODGERS (2013 U.S. Walker Cup Team Member): A normal round of golf takes four hours, maybe even more than that in competition.

HICKS: Two thousand thirteen Walker Cup competitor Patrick Rodgers has grown up in the game. He knows that oftentimes bottlenecks occur on the course, with players waiting on those in front of them to complete a hole.

PATRICK RODGERS: There's a lot of people that want to take a good amount of time in order to make sure that they're ready to hit each shot.

HICKS: These stops and starts affect nearly everyone on the course for hours, lengthening what is referred to as the "pace of play".

MATT PRINGLE (Equipment Standards, USGA): Pace of play can mean how long does it take me to play nine or eighteen holes? How much waiting am I doing as I'm working my way around the course?

HICKS: Matt Pringle is an engineer at the United States Golf Association's Research and Test Center who is helping to build a dynamic model for improving pace of play.

PRINGLE: The first thing we look at is, are there ways to, you know, compress that, while still keeping people, you know, enjoying eighteen holes of golf?

HICKS: Pringle's analysis on pace of play involves a lot of science, technology, engineering, and math.

It all starts with something known as flow rate, or the rate at which a fluid or mass passes through a specific location during a specific timeframe.

An example is the flow of water through a funnel.

PRINGLE (USGA): If I pour water into that funnel slowly, it goes into the funnel, it goes right through and it comes out. But if I started to dump a whole bottle of water into that funnel, the level in the funnel rises and rises and rises.

HICKS: The problem of flow rate happens not just on the golf course, but can be seen in our everyday lives, from crowd management in public spaces, to cars driving on the highway.

PRINGLE: It might be a hundred cars per minute might be able to flow through a certain part of a highway. If you're sending cars into that area faster than that, then a traffic jam is inevitably going to occur.

HICKS: To avoid traffic jams on a golf course, it's important to control the flow rate of players onto the course -- not just on the first tee, but through the full round.

PRINGLE: We really need to balance it all the way through the golf course. Because a golf course isn't just one funnel, it's really eighteen different funnels.

HICKS: Another factor of pace of play is cycle time, or the interval between groups of golfers on the course.

PRINGLE: If a group comes off of a hole at twelve o'clock in the afternoon and next group comes off at ten after twelve in the afternoon, then they have a cycle time of ten minutes.

HICKS: A cycle time of ten minutes would mean that tee times should be spaced out by at least ten minutes in order to avoid bottlenecks on the course. Fewer bottlenecks would lead to an improved pace of play and potentially reduced course maintenance. To gather data on flow rates and cycle times, the USGA is using technology, including this GPS device.

PRINGLE: You can just stick it in your pocket and it'll collect every five seconds where exactly on earth you are and when you are there. And we get an exact path of how they flowed around the golf course with their group. We can get all of these parameters now, and see how all of those things affect how quickly they're able to navigate through.

HICKS: Pringle's goal is to use the data to build a model of how golfers actually move around the course, whether in competition or just having fun on the weekends. Solutions may impact the design, maintenance, and management of courses in ways that balance both flow rate and cycle times.

PRINGLE: When those two are balanced, then we get a nice progression and a nice flow through the golf course for the whole day.

RODGERS: An improved pace of play and a quicker pace of play would make golf maybe more enjoyable for the average person who maybe doesn't know a lot about golf.

HICKS: Whether looking at flow rate or cycle times, keeping a good pace of play will be an important factor in a game where challenges are part of the fun.

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