The Rules of Golf changed a lot on 1st January 2019 with many of the new rules intended to improve the pace of play at all levels of the game. But why were golf’s rule makers looking at this? We therefore did some research to find out how long it takes golfers to play a standard round of 18 holes.
So how long does a round of golf take? A round of 18 holes of golf is expected to take no longer than the following times:
|No. of players
|2 hrs 30 mins
|3 hrs 30 mins
As every golfer will have experienced however these ‘expected’ times are often not a reality. Slow play can mean rounds taking over 5, and sometimes even up to 6 hours. But according to those who have studied the pace of play, it is not players who are mainly at fault for slow play. Overcrowding on the course is actually the most common cause of rounds which take too long.
10 key factors affecting how long a round of golf takes
There is no official data to calculate how long the average a round of golf takes. There is also no official policy across the game’s lawmakers on what an ‘acceptable pace of play’ is. A Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews (R&A) global survey of over 56,000 golfers across 122 countries in 2015, however, showed a clear majority – over 60% – would enjoy the game more it took less time to play.
So simply in terms of increasing player enjoyment, there is a benefit to increasing the general pace of play and addressing the following key factors identified by the R&A affecting how long a round of golf takes:
- Time between groups teeing off – if not enough time between groups is allowed the course can quickly become overcrowded meaning increased waiting and long rounds.
- Number of players in groups – A group of 4 golfers will clearly take longer to play a round than a group of two or three. But it is the poor management of the mix of these different groups through the day which causes long delays.
- Types of play – The type of game chosen on any given day has a direct impact on the pace of play. Strokeplay, where golfers need to complete every hole to have a valid score, is often the slowest. Foursomes golf by comparison, where partners play alternate shots, is the fastest.
- Tee options – A lack of teeing options to cater for different standards of golfer and/or hitting distances can lead to slow play as players are given fewer options to avoid both hitting less lofted, more difficult, clubs and playing over obstacles such as water hazards and bunkers.
- The length of the rough – Severe rough often leads to slow rounds as long periods are spent looking for balls. Grass which is too long around greens can also cause problems as even if balls are not lost the difficulty of the resulting chip shot can mean two and sometimes three chips are required to reach the nearby green.
- Green conditions – very fast or hard greens are two more examples of course conditions that can cause long round times. The pace of play is also impacted when greens have severe slopes and the holes are cut on, or near, the slopes.
- Distances between greens and tees – Long walks or driving cart distances from a green to the next tee will add significantly to the time taken to play. The shorter these distances are the better for the pace of play.
- Obstacles on the course – Most golf courses will have a mix of some or all of the following – rough, bunkers, water hazards, trees, bushes and other obstacles. The more of these there are, and the harder it is to recover from these obstacles, the slower play is likely to be.
- Weather – Golf is a difficult sport to play. Add in some rain and / or strong winds and it becomes even more so. A poor weather day can, as a result, have a major impact on the length of time it takes to a complete a round.
- Player behaviour and ability – Poor player behaviour in relation to the pace of play (e.g. not being ready to play or knowing the rules) can clearly create pace of play problems. Similarly, a player’s ability will without doubt affect the length of time a round takes as 4 golfers taking 90 shots, for example, will inevitably take longer than 4 golfers taking 70 shots.
As we can see therefore it is a common mistake to assume players themselves are the sole cause of slow play. There are a large number of factors which can contribute to a slow round and many of them are there before the players have even arrived at the course and had an impact.
20 ways to reduce the length of time a round of golf takes
- Empty starting intervals or starter gaps – Delays caused by any of the above factors can be reduced or even cleared by having empty ‘starting intervals’ or ‘starter gaps’. Without the empty starting interval, the likelihood is that waiting on that hole will increase as the day goes on.
- Different starting options – Using different options to start play can also help deliver faster rounds. ‘Two tee starts’, where groups start from 2 different tees at the same time, or ‘Shotgun starts’, where groups start simultaneously from multiple tees are two options to get more players round more quickly, simply because more of the holes are utilised from the start.
- Restrict the number of players in groups – A simple way to reduce the length of time it takes to play a round is for course managers to restrict the number of players in each group.
- Mix up different groups – If the mix of when different sized groups – two, three and four-balls – start their round through the day is not managed significant delays can result, as faster groups will want and expect to be let through larger and slower ones.
- Establish a ‘time par’ for each hole – Similar to the concept of the ‘scoring par’ for a hole, ‘time par’ is the name for the standard length of time a group is expected to complete each hole. This then gives groups a guide as to the pace they are expected to be playing at and can be printed on scorecards for example for easy reference.
- Make good use of golf course staff or volunteers – Golf course staff and volunteers can all have a positive impact on the speed of play. Check-in staff at the professional shop and starters, for example, can advise on the pace of play expectations at the course. Caddies also, if available, can help keep an eye on how quickly their group is playing.
- Positive communication with players – Good and clear communication with players by all means available is a key component in ensuring rounds do not take too long. Every member of a course’s management team (committees, professionals etc) can help ensure all golfers have clear, helpful and friendly guidance on pace of play expectations.
- Deter slow play and incentivise ‘good paced’ play – Courses can also consider introducing both penalties sanctions for slow play and/or incentives for play at a good pace. Penalties could include for example players being asked to leave the course or requiring attendance at a session on how to improve their pace of play. Incentives could include a free drink at the bar, a discounted item from the professional’s shop or even a reduced green fee for the next round.
- Provide a variety of tees – A variety of tees, not labelled as ‘men’s’ or ‘women’s’, but able to be used by players according to their ability and /or hitting distances can help the pace of play. There is also evidence to suggest this increases player enjoyment.
- Increased fairway widths – Wider fairways can lead to more easier shots for golfers from fairways and less time spent looking for lost balls in the rough.
- Make the rough easier – extending the first cut of rough (i.e. the grass immediately beside the fairway) and reducing its length overall, so it is more likely players can find their ball, are two further potential ways to help speed up play.
- Good and clear course signs – Simple and clear signs directing golfers, particularly visitors, can ensure everyone takes the quickest route around the course.
- Players maintaining ‘position’ on the course – Players should always be aiming to keep up with the group in front of them. For example, a group should not have an empty par 4 between them and the group ahead. If they do and are also delaying the group behind they should invite the players behind to play through (i.e. go past them).
- Pick up balls when appropriate – If a player can no longer contribute to the game they are playing on a particular hole (i.e. their score no longers matters for that hole) they should pick up to help the pace of play.
- Be ‘ready to play’ – This simply means that a player, as long as they do not disturb another player or compromise anyone’s safety, should make themselves ‘ready to play’ while they are waiting for other players. This means the player assessing and deciding what their next shot will be, making a decision on club selection or lining up the putt.
- Play ‘ready golf’ – Distinct from ‘ready to play’ is the concept of ‘ready golf’. This phrase covers a number of actions that can individually and together speed up play. Examples include hitting a shot before helping another player looking for a lost ball, short hitters playing first if longer hitters are forced to wait and putting out even if it means standing close to someone else’s line. ‘Ready golf’ is however not appropriate in match play.
- Position of bags or carts – When players approach the green, golf bags or carts should be positioned to allow for quick and efficient movement off the green towards the next tee.
- Play a ‘provisional’ ball – Ball searches and lost balls cannot usually be avoided but they cause a delay. A player who thinks they may have hit a ball out of bounds or lost it should play a provisional ball. This stops the need for the player to walk or drive back to the spot of their previous shot if indeed the ball is lost or out of bounds.
- Choose the right type of game at the right time – Golfers are typically themselves in charge of who they play with, what the game will be and when they want to play. All these choices have an impact on how long a round will take. If players want to play strokeplay for example, the slowest form of the game, then ideally they should not play in a group of four. If players want to play quickly they can also consider choosing a quieter time of the day when the course is potentially under-utilised or has not yet filled up.
- Watch every ball possible – Searching for lost balls, as we have noted already, cause delays. This problem can be reduced significantly however if all players make an effort to watch both their own shots and each other’s as carefully and as often as possible.
How will the new rules reduce the length of time a round of golf takes?
Golf’s rulemakers have long been worried about the pace of play. Surveys and research have shown that increased times to play a round of golf both stops current golfers playing more often and also new people taking up golf.
As a result, together with a large number of other changes, effective from 1st January 2019, a number of rules have been introduced to help speed up play. A selection of these are as follows:
- Search time – The time a player can search for their golf ball has been reduced by 40% from 5 minutes to 3 minutes.
- How to ‘drop’ the ball – Golfers will no longer have to drop the ball from shoulder height but can now drop the ball from knee height only a few inches off the ground. This is aimed to speed up play by increasing the chances of the dropped ball staying within the permitted two-club-length drop area on the first try and not needing to be re-dropped.
- Putting with flagstick in the hole is now permitted – The new rules take away the previous penalty for hitting a flagstick left in the hole while putting on a green. The frequent taking out and placing back of flagsticks could previously often cause delays in a round of golf.
- Embedded or ‘plugged’ ball – Under the pre-2019 rules of golf when a ball became embedded in its own pitch mark you were only allowed to take relief when the ball was on the fairway. Now golfers are allowed to drop the ball immediately behind the spot the ball was embedded irrespective of where on the course the ball landed (e.g. the rough).
- Pace of play recommendations – In addition to formally recommending many of the aspects of ‘ready golf’ noted above, the new 2019 rules also recommend that a player takes their shot no longer than 40 seconds after the time when they should have been ‘ready to play’.
There are a number of reasons for wanting to reduce the length of time it takes to play a round of golf. Greater players satisfaction and increased participation, both by current and new players, are two of the key ones we have highlighted here.
Therefore for all of us who love the game, it would appear to be in all our interests to keep a good pace of play up and not keep everyone waiting.
How long does it take to play nine holes of golf? 9 holes of golf is expected to take no longer than 1 hour 15 minutes for 1 player, 1 hour 30 minutes for a group of 2 players, 1 hour 45 minutes for a group of 3 players and 2 hours for a group of 4 players.
How long does a round of golf take at the Masters? There is no official data for the length of time a round takes at the Masters, one of the four major tournaments in golf. The estimated average time for a round of golf at a professional tournament is 4 hours 45 minutes to 5 hours 30 minutes per round.
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