How to put a quick end to slow play

Tiger Woods isn’t in the field this week at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am.

And it isn’t because last year he was embarrassed by eventual champion Phil Mickelson in a final-round showdown.

The reasons for Woods’ absence are many — he usually plays only once in California to start his season, and this year it was Torrey Pines, where he won — but what doesn’t help the tournament is that it’s regarded as the slowest on the PGA Tour’s calendar.

Of course, much of the reason for that is because the professionals play with an amateur partner — men whose golf balls don’t seem to care that they’re rich or famous — and the weather’s not usually cooperative.

But, either way, six-hour rounds of golf — not uncommon at the Pebble Beach Pro-Am — are no fun for anybody, even with Bill Murray clowning around to kill time.

Which is why United States Golf Association president Glen Nager should be applauded for elevating the issue of slow play to the top of his to-do list.

“Pace of play has been an issue for decades; but it has now become one of the most significant threats to the game’s health,” Nager said in his state-of-golf speech last weekend.

“Five-hour-plus rounds of golf are incompatible with life in modern society, where there are many alternative forms of entertainment and sport that fit more comfortably into the compressed time that we have available for recreation and relaxation.

“Poor place of play saps the fun from the game, frustrates players and discourages future play.”

Nager is working on a laundry list of ideas to help — from encouraging golfers to play different formats, such as Stableford, that allows players to pick up once they’ve exceeded two shots over par, to setting up courses for a faster pace of play — but I’ve got one that will be guaranteed to work.

Penalizing professionals who play at turtle speed is the quickest way to change the culture of golf.

Not long ago in Scotland, the home of the game, it was considered rude to take more than three hours — while walking — to play 18 holes.

How did golf go from that to a place where it’s somehow acceptable for hacks to plumb-bob their 2-footers for triple bogey with two groups waiting behind them?

I’ve long believed it’s because they’re emulating what they see their role models doing on television.

If Tiger bends down to look at a 20 footer from three different angles, then all those who aspire to be like him feel it’s acceptable to do the same. Never do they factor in that he’s taking 20 shots less per round than they are.

Young amateurs are told by their “mind coaches” not to pull the trigger on a shot until they’re completely ready. That sounds like sage advice until you see the carnage it creates at college events.

The PGA Tour, of course, should be setting the pace — excuse the pun — on this issue, but it doesn’t have the will.

The tour hasn’t handed out a penalty stroke for slow play since the 1995 Honda Classic, to Glen Day, a man universally known as “All Day”.

The tour does hand out fines — unpublicized — for players who accumulate “bad times” but given the size of purses, these are a relative pittance. For a player who’s making a few million dollars a year, paying $10,000 in slow-play penalties is basically a cost of doing business.

Some slow players argue that they play at their natural pace, but fast tour pros note that their slower competitors quickly pick up their speed when they’re first put on the clock, which begs the question: Why not play at that pace the whole time?

Should it really take 3 hours, 51 minutes to play 11 holes of golf, as it did for Woods’ group in the Monday finish at Torrey Pines?

“Slow play has been around since I started playing professionally, and no doubt before me as well,” Greg Norman said. “And nothing will change regarding penalizing the culprits, either.”

Norman called the situation “appalling” and said everyone — from slow players themselves to the governing bodies, including the PGA Tour — “should be ashamed” of allowing the situation to continue.

“Just like the drug policy, unless you implement and police the rules that are in place, then nothing will stop individuals being themselves,” he said.

Even though the tour won’t start penalizing slow players strokes, it could easily start shaming them into playing faster by releasing statistics for pace of play, as it does for other categories.

Players won’t want to be at the bottom of that kind of list because it won’t go over well with sponsors or fans.

But, ultimately, the fastest way to speed up play is to hand out stroke penalties.

And if Nager’s serious about tackling slow play, that’s what he’ll do this year at the US Open.