What it means to be “on the clock” in golf

Image of hands on the clockPROFESSIONAL GOLFERS never want to hear the phrase “on the clock” and it should not be one that is used in a GottaGoGolfer’s everyday golf glossary. But it played a major role in the 2016 U.S. Women’s Open, and you might hear it from time to time on the Golf Channel, particularly when Jordan Spieth is playing.

Spieth tends to play golf deliberately, engaging in long discussions with his caddie over the wind, the yardage, the lie and his target line — usually something like “that man in the red shirt.” As Nick Faldo said, Jordan “doesn’t like to be rushed, does he?”

The USGA launched a battle against slow play among recreational golfers with a fun “While We’re Young” campaign a few years ago. LPGA Commissioner Mike Whan took such an aggressive stance on slow play among the women that Morgan Pressel had a costly one-shot penalty in a 2012 match. The results have been measurable, to the delight of the TV networks: Rounds move faster.

EVEN YOU MAY BE “ON THE CLOCK”

If you play in any sort of official golf tournament, the organizers most likely have a pace-of-play requirement. The Northern California Golf Association, for example, requires that groups play within a certain allotted time; if no group is finishing within that time, you must at least finish within 14 minutes of the preceding group to avoid a one-shot penalty. It is not unusual for foursome after foursome to be greeted on the final hole by an official delivering the bad news and the penalty.

But “on the clock” is fairly unique to the pro tours because only the pro tours have the resources and staff to put a player on the clock. When a group is out of position — usually, a hole behind the group ahead — all of the players in the group will be told that they are on the clock and now have only a certain amount of time to play each shot.

On the aggressive LPGA, that’s 30 seconds typically; on the PGA Tour and in USGA championships such as the U.S. Open that’s 40 seconds.

In the final round of the Women’s Open, the final group, which included 54-hole leader Lydia Ko, was placed on the clock for four holes — an eternity when every shot matters and you’d like to spend hours debating the wind, distance and target with your caddie. As the players rushed to catch up, their games suffered.

The first player to use more time than her allotted time on a shot  gets a warning; Eun-Hee Ji, for example, took more than the 40 seconds permitted by the USGA to line up her putt on Sunday and was warned. The next time, he or she would receive a one-stroke penalty and the third time a two-stroke penalty.

Players do go off the clock once their group is back in position.

It is not unusual for groups to be put on the clock; it is very unusual for any professional to receive a penalty. The pros know how to play faster. They just typically don’t play faster.

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  1. Alice Harris