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Slow on the uptake

"American referees are not as intimidating as the European referees. When you see John Paramor or Andy McFee coming along, you know you want to speed up, and you know they will be hard on you. That’s what I like about the European Tour: they are a lot harder than they are over in America."

These were the words of Irishman Shane Lowry recently, and while the European Tour faces its share of problems, they are leading the way in the crackdown on slow play.

Chief executive Keith Pelley put a face to the campaign when he came into power in 2015, escalating the fight against slow pokes with the announcement of a new "monitoring penalty" for those who exceed 50 seconds per shot (40 if not the first to play within the group). The punishment for this is a $2 500 fine, which, in conjunction with the increasingly-strict imposition of a one-stroke penalty for those out of position, has finally put a bit of fear into the players.

In fact, Korea's Soomin Lee was just another in a long queue of members of the hold-up gang to suffer the wrath of European Tour officials over the last five or six years when he incurred a penalty at the Volvo China Open the week before last.

In contrast, foursomes duo Brian Campbell and Miguel Angel Cabrallo became the first PGA Tour players in nearly 22 years to be done for slow play at the Zurich Classic that same weekend, highlighting just how ineffective the Americans have been at resolving this growing problem - especially when you consider the likes of Ben Crane have casually strolled around at tortoise pace for many a season without suffering any such sanctions.

Credit where it's due - last week's crack of the whip from officials suggests they've finally woken up. But the PGA and USGA are still a long way from being on top of this, with a recent magazine survey of the Tour's players revealing that 84 percent believe slow play to be a problem.

"My dad has said it's been talked about in player meetings since he was a rookie," commented Bill Haas last week, whose father Jay's first season was back in 1977. ''What are we going to do about it?"

Many pundits point to the policy itself as the issue. The 50/40-second rule is also applied on the PGA Tour, but only comes into effect if the group is out of position, for which they still receive a courtesy nudge. Thereafter, they are put on the clock and entitled to one further warning, before eventually being assessed a penalty if they fail to keep up.

Clearly such an extensive set of alerts leaves the system open to exploitation. Many players will only feel the need to stick to the guidelines once they are actually on the clock. And even then, they can quite easily do just enough to stay out of trouble without materially reducing the time taken to complete a round.

It does lend credence to the idea that such notifications and formalities should be reduced, or even scrapped completely. After all, you don't get a warning for speeding on the highway. Why would it be so sacrilegious for golfers to encounter treatment of a similar vein? Especially given their obvious visual reference of the group in front (and behind)?

The PGA also don't consider timing to be an exact science as it is, and thus allow a buffer of a few seconds anyway. To me, this smacks of a lack of clear definition, and provides a smokescreen for officials to be soft, and for players to ultimately keep getting away with it. In fact, on the other side of the pond, the European Tour made a mockery of this by unveiling a shot clock this past weekend at the GolfSixes.

True, there are some mitigating factors. Greens are getting quicker, pin placings tougher and the stakes ever higher. It adds to the pressure cooker of a game that already relies more on thought and mental process than it does on instinct.

But slow play is at the heart of the challenge golf faces in its bid to stay relevant in the modern age, and the PGA Tour is the most significant face of the game's brand. There may not be easy answers here, and one doesn't want to simply shoot from the hip. But doing nothing - or precious little - must surely be the worst option of all.

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