The Four-Hour Round is Bullshit
And the group in front of you isn’t slowing you down — the course is.
The Lie We Tell Ourselves
Four hours. That’s how long a round of golf should take… right? The round should take four hours if it weren’t this slow group in front of me.
You hear these claims everywhere:
How much time should a round of golf take?…
Mark Townsend: Three hours and 45 minutes tops…
Dan Murphy: If you left 20-minute gaps between groups and gave them four-and-a-half hours to finish or face penalty shots being applied. I’m betting they’d make it round in time…
Matthew Beedle: Anything between three and four hours for club golfers.
— National Club Golfer3
The constant refrain: golf should always take less than four hours, and if people just pick up the pace, this wouldn’t be happening. We hear perennial reminders to hurry up married with subtle hints that this is our fault. The USGA even added pace of play guidance in 2019 to tell players to hurry up.4
Bullshit. It’s honestly bullshit.
The average round of golf is about 4 hours, 17 minutes and 19 seconds.5
That’s the average for all rounds. On the weekend it’s 4 hours 23 minutes.6 If you’re playing on the weekend, and your pace is faster than 4 hours 20 minutes, you should celebrate. Unfortunately, most people set the benchmark at 3 hours 45 minutes, which is about the average length of the first round on a course each day.7
So, we have predawn rounds that last 3 hours 45 minutes, why can’t we keep pace all day? Unfortunately, this is effectively impossible, and that idea is gaslighting the golf community. When people assert that even a 4-hour round could be happen if only players could pick up the pace… it’s nonsense.
Pace of Play: An Invisible Rube Goldberg Machine
There is serious research modeling pace of play.89 Simulations illustrate how pace unfolds over the course of the day, using simulated players with reasonable statistical patterns designed to mimic observed human behavior. The results are then confirmed against actual course data.
The results are clear: fast golfers still create slow rounds.
In golf, variability can only lead to slower play. Instinct might say that the variability would average out, but it doesn’t. One group’s fast play does not cancel the slow play of another. Consider two groups of similar playing-time ability playing two consecutive holes. If the first group plays the first hole slowly then the next one fast and the following group plays the second slowly, the second group (because it had to wait for the first group to clear the first hole) “plays” both holes slowly. The variability doesn’t cancel, it adds, it accumulates.10
The literature looks at golf courses as a factory assembly line, and the movement of pace of play very closely parallels the assembly line process, where one station (or gate) must be reached before the next. Understanding this concept shows how slow pace unfolds through the day. In this chart, we see only fast groups, yet each is slower to finish the course than the one before it:
Figure 3 — Fast groups with 8-minute tee interval.11
This is an idealized scenario, where each group is simulated and moving equally quickly, and there is no variability in how long it takes to finish each hole. The day starts out with players at about 4 hours, but ends with 4-hour-20-minute rounds.
So, what is happening? Well, not every hole takes the same amount of time to finish. Even if everyone is playing at the same speed, when a hole takes extra time to finish, players must wait for the group in front to finish. Each group behind must wait on the one before it. It’s a bottleneck:
Interestingly, although the time to play the par 4 hole is larger, it has a higher capacity than the par 3. A similar analysis for par 5s shows that their capacity is the same as the par 4s, 6.67 per hour. Given that the capacity of the par 3s is lower than the capacity of the others, they are by definition the bottlenecks.
Unfortunately, most courses start with a par 4 or 5... Since the capacity of a par 3 is 6 per hour, a queue has to build up.12
Par 3s are natural bottlenecks. There isn’t much players can do about that, and any natural bottlenecks will slow pace through the day beyond their capacity, even under ideal scenarios. Players also take more time off tees on par 3s for club selection, which compounds the problem.1314
With these bottlenecks, the only way to keep pace moving is to slow the tee time interval (the wait time between each group off the first tee) to the natural bottleneck rate. In the previous idealized scenario, the simulated groups can move through the bottleneck smoothly when we increase tee time intervals to 9 minutes per group.15
Thus, there is a speed limit. We will always be limited to the carry capacity of the slowest hole on the golf course. The tee time interval controls the speed, and if players are sent off too fast, they’ll hit a traffic jam.
Course Revenues vs Pace of Play
The biggest conflict we see in the data is that course revenue is directly in conflict with pace of play. Due to the existence of natural bottlenecks, the general formula for the four-hour round is effectively:
Time to Play = 240 + (14—Interval) ^ 2.7
where 240 minutes is the unimpeded time to play a round, and
Interval is the tee time interval in minutes16
Effectively, when modeling rounds of golf, 14-minute tee time intervals are the requirement for a four-hour round under reasonable conditions. With this equation we can trivially calculate the rounds per day:
Number of Groups = (60/Interval) * [14 hours—(240 + (14—Interval) ^2.7)/60]
Total in Day
Where Interval = Tee Time Interval
14 Daylight Hours
240 + (14—Interval) ^ 2.7 calculates the time to play a round in minutes17
The outflow of this is that, starting from a four-hour round, courses must balance their pace of play somewhere between 14-minute intervals and 8-minute intervals, as we can see from this table:18
We see here that a course will get diminishing returns below 8-minute tee time intervals. The less obvious fact is the sheer amount of revenue that the course must give up to achieve these four-hour rounds. Research shows:
the “optimal” revenue strategy for this course is to have an interval of eight minutes. But that interval results in a six hour round! As such it is quite possible that in many cases, it is in management’s best financial interests (at least in the short run) to have too short of a tee interval and “force” a five even a six hour round on their patrons. This poses a significant conundrum from a pace of play perspective.
To get a four-hour round, the interval would have to increase to about 12 minutes. But that reduces the number of groups who can finish in a day by about 17%. Course owners are not going to do that unless they can raise prices 17% or, by reputation, get more golfers to play on those days that aren’t filled. This is a serious obstacle to pace of play advocates. If the course is full all the time, it is hard to argue for improved pace of play19
If you’re playing a course with less than 12-minute intervals, even under reasonable conditions, the round should be taking significantly longer than we expect. My local muni sets their tee times at 10-minute intervals. The data here suggests that I should be expecting 4-hour-35-minute rounds. Again, not far from the average weekend round of 4 hours 23 minutes.
Of course, this is all theoretical. However data has since been collected that supports the analysis. Pace slows significantly as the day moves into the afternoon,20 and there is a linear relationship between rounds-per-day (a proxy for tee time interval) and pace of play.21
Is It Hopeless? Of Course Not
Firstly, I think we need to start by being reasonable about the situation. Four-hour rounds are still relatively easily attainable right now, but at the same time, they should be seen as the exception, and not the rule. While the data suggest that most of the slow days are likely the result of course policy, sometimes it’s just bad luck.
The easiest way to get regular four-hour rounds appears to be joining a private, membership club. All five “fastest” clubs represented in the the data were private, and all five “slowest” were public:
probably most significantly, the average rounds played in the data base at the five “fastest” courses was 147.8 and at the five “slowest” courses 409.6 indicating that the “slowest” courses likely had two and one half as many golfers on their courses as the “fastest.”22
Private clubs have little to no interest in increasing the amount of play beyond the comfort level of members. It seems sensible that they could leave wide gaps in their tee intervals. Playing at private clubs would also explain how well-connected golf journalists seem to have overly optimistic ideas of what normal pace should be.
The other obvious way to get a four-hour round is to get up before dawn and hope for the best. At public courses, the first rounds of the day are dramatically faster than even rounds in mid-morning. Playing early mornings on weekdays will increase the odds of sub-four-hour rounds, but if you play regularly on the weekends, it’s a good idea to be warming up on the range when it’s still pitch black outside.
While we’re trying to be reasonable about the situation, I think it’s a good idea to respect that most of our favorite affordable courses are operating on a shoestring budget. They desperately need extra revenue, and if that means five-hour rounds, so be it. If we want these courses to survive, we shouldn’t expect them to start cutting tee times. That said, there are lots of things busy courses could do to alleviate some of that pain right now.
How to Improve Customer Experiences Today
If pace of play is a problem, there are almost certainly bottlenecks. Embrace the bottlenecks, just to ease the pain. Lions Muni, one of the courses I played in my early golfing days, has a fairly well-known backup at #2 and #4, which are adjacent tees. I think they should put a taco truck there. Serve tacos, hot dogs, or coffee at known problem areas, or even add a putting green. Players already know it’s going to be a slow day. It’d be much more entertaining, and generate more revenue, if we could grab an early lunch. Beverage carts are already contributing to the slow pace, so why not get rid of them and build a couple of bottleneck pubs where we know the course backs up?
To address pace directly (and this should be obvious) an active starter is likely the fastest way to improve the slowest courses. Keep tabs on people, making sure they don’t start before or after their scheduled tee time, and send groups out as foursomes. It seems obvious, but it doesn’t always happen. The pace is typically defined by the slowest group, and group size matters a lot:
A larger Group Size increased time on the green an additional 19.4 seconds per person. As an example, groups of 5 added almost 6 minutes during a round compared with foursomes, without considering the impact on the tee box, which had a similar impact.23
increasing Group Size by one golfer added 27.5 seconds to the time on each tee box.24
If a fivesome sneaks on early in the day, that wasted time will carry to every group behind them. A starter keeping an eye on this can stop pace problems before they start.
Next, never ever schedule a tournament early in the morning. Research shows that tournaments are the strongest influence on groups clearing the green.
Golfers in a tournament take significantly more time. Green time increased 68 seconds, which is over 20 minutes per round.25
Since tournaments add significant time to play, it makes one wonder why clubs so frequently schedule them in the morning. This is an absolute, all day, pace of play killer. Players are slower for understandable reasons during tournaments. Tradition be damned: schedule tournaments in the afternoon when you can, and if there are conflicts, schedule them on Saturday afternoons instead.
Next is the tough one: intervals, intervals, intervals. If a course wants to improve pace, that’s the most effective solution. This affects revenues, so it’s often not an option for some courses. If a course chooses a longer interval, they should advertise it! Point it out to customers. Put it on a sign. Make it seem like it’s a big deal, because it is a big deal. A 17% price increase to get pace at or very close to 4 hours is a price increase that I want to pay. At a $40-per-round muni, that’s just $6.80, and this time savings could lead to many players sticking around and spending some money at the 19th hole. I would also experiment with increasing intervals as the day progresses. Maybe it’s okay to send people out every 10 minutes til 10am, but then slow it to 12 or 13 minutes afterwards (unfortunately no data I found covers this scenario).
If you have full bookings regularly, try to get USGA members (ideally with low handicaps) playing during the earliest tee times. Once pace slows, it’s slow all day, so keeping total beginners off the course in the morning can avert disaster, even if they let people play through. Advertise “beginners’ bookings” or “learners’ tee times” in the afternoon just before twilight rates. Most people learning don’t want to slow others down, so at least let them what know the ideal time is for them to be playing.
Finally, make the first fairway wide open. If you can remove trees, and remove the rough, you can remove breakfast balls. On tee boxes, the dominant pace factor is mulligans/provisionals/re-teeing the ball:
Of the significant variables, Mulligans/Re-hit increases the amount of the time on the green the most compared with the other significant variables. When golfers hit a second shot from the tee box, an additional minute is added. Although this does not occur on every hole, it does occur quite frequently on the first hole. Sixty-seven percent (67%) of the mulligans/re-hits occurred on the first hole in this study.26
Breakfast balls slow play, so give players every chance they can get to recover on their first shot. Yes, I’d consider removing trees if that’s what it takes, and even moving the first tee forward. The first hole on every pace-conscious course should look like a links. If the world’s worst slicer has a reasonable recovery shot, then that first shot will do just fine.
Build Courses for Ideal Pace
Designing a course with pace in mind can minimize problems significantly. It can allow management to reduce intervals and increase total groups per day without increasing total pace time. Most of the focus needs to be on par 3s. Carry capacity (bottlenecks), breakfast balls, and club selection time can all be eliminated by making the first hole a par 3. Each par 3 is inherently a bottleneck, but since it’s the first hole, a smaller carry capacity does not affect pace. Following this logic, the first hole should be the longest par 3 (or at least a mid-length par 3). I understand people may have concerns with making a par 3 the first hole, but there is still more data to support this.
We also know players are slower at par 3 tees:
Club selection on par 3 holes added an additional 18 seconds. On most par 4 or par 5 holes, the golfer hits a driver. However, different clubs are required on par 3 holes based on its length.27
Finally, breakfast balls have the potential to significantly slow pace. By changing the first tee to a reachable par 3, management should be able to dramatically reduce this bad habit. Contact with a wedge or a short iron is much easier than with a driver and the chance of lost or out-of-bounds shots can easily be reduced. Also, the rough can be effectively eliminated on a par 3 without taking away the hole’s challenge.
A second idea with par 3 placement is to set the longest par 3 as #10. This way, groups waiting can purchase refreshments and have a comfortable wait if the course is backed up. One course that does this well is Pacific Grove Golf Links, which has back-to-back par 3s as #1 and #2, with another back-to-back at #9 and #10. Typically, grabbing a beverage and sandwich at the turn isn’t an issue here, as the group behind has a full hole to play, and there may be a small wait at the par 3 10th anyway.
Using paired par 3s to allow faster groups to play through is a fascinating idea. At Raymond Memorial, Robert Trent Jones Sr. had the clever idea of making all the par 3s “twin par 3s,” that is, two nearly identical holes sitting adjacent to each other. This, in theory, could allow faster groups an opportunity to pass extremely slow groups. Now, I don’t think twin par 3s are used for passing at Raymond Memorial, or if the idea is more trouble than it’s worth, but it’s an idea is worth exploring for courses where slower groups are a serious problem.
Searching for lost balls are another big time sink. In areas where lost balls are common, such as thickets and wooded areas, consider adding an environmental/wildlife hazard. Environmental/wildlife hazards are red-stake penalty areas, however players cannot enter these areas for environmental reasons. One course where you can find these hazards is Sharp Park, which serves as a habitat for two endangered species. The benefit of dedicating areas to wildlife is twofold: instead of frequent, minutes-long searches, players must simply take a drop. At the same time, the environmental/wildlife hazard creates a secluded area for local fauna to thrive. Players don’t disturb the wildlife, and faster pace of play in a more thriving environment is the result.
Conscientious players are less likely to have extremely slow rounds, so another strategy is creating a long-term campaign targeting conscientious golfers that care about pace issues. If pace is a concern to the course’s brand, it will help if these experienced golfers are differentiated:
A focus strategy can be appropriate for service providers faced with substantial customer variability… the most relevant to the golf course industry is capability (or skill) variability, which directly impacts pace of play… experienced golfers (also known as “core golfers”) constitute such a target market… they have similar customer inputs (e.g. higher skill level) and similar customer expectations (e.g. prefer a faster pace of play). Due to their higher frequency of play, experienced golfers represent a valuable target market.28
Perhaps offer morning discounts or early booking to low-handicap golfers. Official USGA GHIN handicap cards (now easily accessible on any smartphone) can trivially show a player is more likely to play quickly during the crucial morning hours. There are many ways to court the faster players and get them on the course earlier to keep player experience high throughout the day.
Finally, courses should be honest about the root issues behind pace of play, both with their customers and themselves. Without first focusing on alleviating natural bottlenecks, and creating generous tee time intervals, it would hardly be fair to send a marshal out to hurry up golfers who likely fell behind simply because of one challenging hole. Most players want to keep up, but a challenging course will be challenging!
Where Players Can Focus Effectively
While most of this has concentrated on courses and management, there are a few general guidelines players should focus on as they play.
In pace of play modeling, it seems that time-to-shoot is a dominant variable. Moving slowly and hitting quickly shouldn’t slow the group as much as moving quickly and hitting slowly:
Again this is explainable in simple terms… the results are pretty strong. This leads to a five hour round for almost everyone even though everyone moved fast. The PGA Tour faces this problem. Their players move to their balls quickly but then are very deliberate in making their strokes.29
Limit the length of your pre-shot routine. Set up the next shot while others are playing. Use a GPS instead of a laser. Ready golf is important for pace, but it’s not rushing that makes the difference, it’s being mindful to evaluate your shot while others are taking theirs.
Another place that has the ability to slow pace through the day is the 18th green. Leave the green before marking cards, counting scores, and saying goodbyes. It’s too often that I see groups discuss the round, shake hands, and mark their scores all before leaving the green. This adds up through the day, and many courses can have significant backups heading into the 18th green. Courses would do well to provide an obvious area adjacent to the last green that is both welcoming and protected so that the group can discuss the round, mark their scores, and say their goodbyes without psychologically “leaving the course.” So give them a comfortable place to do this off the 18th green, but before they reach the clubhouse.
It Shouldn’t Feel Like Anything
Little things, like a place to mark your scorecard after the last green, can go a long way towards reducing pace of play without anyone noticing. In fact, most pace issues can be dealt with in the background. Whether it’s longer intervals, a par 3 as the first hole, afternoon tournaments, or “beginners welcome” tee times, most of these improvements will be completely invisible to the players.
While pace and wait time are two different things, creating faster pace is doable without chastising people for something that they rarely have control over. Fast players playing with inappropriate tee time intervals will lead to slow pace. It’s possible to create an environment where players and management can productively make faster rounds comfortable, even at busy public courses. Until then, remember that when someone flippantly tells you “your round should only take 3 hours and 45 minutes,” they honestly have no idea what they’re talking about.
Sens, Josh. “Forget the pros, here’s how long it should take YOU to play a round of golf.” Golf, 12 Aug. 2019.
Riccio, Lucius. "The status of pace of play in American Golf." New York, NY: Three/45 Golf Association (2014).
Note: the facts throughout this paragraph are from this study, based on 40,460 rounds at 175 American golf courses.
Riccio (2014) 13.
Riccio (2014) 14.
Riccio, Lucius. "Analyzing the pace of play in golf: the golf course as a factory." International Journal of Golf Science 1.2 (2012): 90-112.
Fu, Qi, and Ward Whitt. "Models to study the pace of play in golf." submitted to Operations Research (2013).
Riccio (2012) 105.
Riccio (2012) 99.
The graph is of simulated pace of play, with all fast groups, in minutes.
Riccio (2012) 97.
Tiger, Andrew A., and J. Eric Ellerbrook. "Improving golf pace of play using time study analysis: Influencing factors on the green and tee box." International Journal of Golf Science 5.2 (2016): 135-151.
Riccio (2012) 98.
Riccio (2012) 109.
Note: this is based on data from Kimes and Schruben’s research on the relationship between tee time interval and overall play:
Kimes, Sheryl E., and Lee W. Schruben. "Golf course revenue management: A study of tee time intervals." Journal of Revenue and Pricing Management 1.2 (2002): 111-120.
Riccio (2012) 110.
Riccio (2012) 110.
Riccio (2012) 111.
Riccio (2014) 14-15.
Riccio (2014) 15.
Note: a lower correlation is reported than is expected, however, due to the data-gathering methods (GPS on carts) we should expect the reported rounds to be a lower bound, since walkers are not being counted. This suggest that the actual number of rounds should, and can only be, closer to expectations than reported.
Riccio (2012) 103-104.
Miller, Laura S. "Managing Customer Variability in the Golf Course Industry." Destinations... It’s All About The Experience! (2009): 153.
Riccio (2012) 103-104.