Got Time to Play 18 Holes? If You've Got a Lunch Hour...

The golf industry is sacrificing some gentlemanly manners in pursuit of a faster game with more mass appeal.

Lightning round.

Photographer: Scott Halleran/Getty Images

It looks like the United States Golf Association is taking a page out of George H.W. Bush’s scorecard. The former president was famous for putting a priority on speed around the links at the expense of, ahem, a dogged adherence to the rule book. He reportedly once played 18 holes in 51 minutes, while the rest of us duffers rarely come in under four hours.

Now, in the stated purpose of making the game’s rules “easier to understand and apply,” the USGA, along with the U.K.’s governing Royal and Ancient Golf Club, is considering cutting the game’s main regulations to 24 from 34. And while some changes involve obscure penalties for things like balls bouncing off one’s caddie -- one of the few embarrassments I’ve never managed to suffer on the course -- most seem to be about speeding things up.

This makes a lot of sense. Golf’s popularity has cratered since the Tiger Woods-fueled bubble of 15 years ago; an estimated 31 million Americans played the game in 2003, as opposed to fewer than 25 million today. TV ratings, equipment sales and club memberships have also swooned, and every year in the last decade, more courses have been shuttered than opened.

A big reason for this is that it simply takes so much time to play a round. And you cannot get any good at the game unless you play regularly, at least a couple times a week. Plus, most country clubs ban phones on the course, so you lose all those hours of tweeting and sharing and trading commodities futures and all other joys of our digitally connected lives. 

The most important proposed changes will affect pace of play at every hole’s bottleneck, the area on and around the putting green. These include eliminating the penalty for hitting an unattended flagstick still in the hole with a putt, which is a godsend to those of us who are tired of spending 15 minutes standing over our approach shot while the foursome ahead futzes with taking the pin out. Players would also be allowed to take a ball out of a sand trap for a two-stroke penalty.

Other time-savers include reducing the time allowed searching for a lost ball to three minutes from five, and mandating that after a certain amount of strokes on a hole, a player has to pick up his or her ball and move on. The big goal is to encourage "ready golf," which means abandoning the rules of etiquette that, for instance, require the player farthest from the hole to take the next shot. The new ethos is: if you have the chance, fire away.

Golf isn’t the only sport that’s worried about pace of play -- Major League Baseball is also looking at rules changes to bring back fans to the seats. The Olympics chose to add a speeded-up seven-man team version of rugby last year rather than the traditional 15-man sides.

But golf is far more dependent than other sports on recreational players, who spend billions annually on clubs, greens fees and memberships to feed their habits. These proposed rules changes aren’t just about simplification for elite players; they are needed to confront an industry-wide crisis.

Golfers are a hidebound lot, often fixated on the game’s ancient traditions and aura of gentlemanliness. (Which conveniently ignores the significant role women play in the sport’s popularity.) So expect a backlash against the proposals, which will undergo a six-month review for comment from pros and amateurs alike. But traditionalists should take note: the health of the game, not to mention the peace within uncounted marriages, depends on speeding things up.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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