“How long does it take to play a round of golf?” and “How long should it take” are two separate questions.
The standard answer is four and a half hours. That’s based on the assumption of fifteen minutes per hole.
I think that’s an hour longer than the ideal. The Scots would be appalled at the typical American four hour round.
During off-peak hours at some of my favorite local courses, I can complete a solo walking round in well under three hours. With a foursome, all walking, I’ve completed rounds in just over three. Cart golf takes longer. But then I’ve also suffered through five hour rounds, waiting on every shot on every hole for the guys in front of me.
Most of the literature I’ve read says that the pace of play should average somewhere between 9 and 18 minutes per hole. On the low end would be perhaps nine minutes for a par 3, and the high end, 18 for a par 5. That’s assuming that players hit the ball, find the ball and then hit it again. But there are so many things that can—and will—test that calculus. A strict interpretation of the rules, for example, says that a player has five minutes to look for a lost ball. If a ball is lost every two or three holes (a very common occurrence, given the skills sets of weekend hackers), you can add at least another half hour just in looking for balls.
That’s not good news, and I think that the time involved is a major detriment to the expansion of the game. During way too many moments spent sitting on benches waiting for the group ahead to clear out, I’ve thought quite a bit about why rounds of golf take so long. I’ve come to the conclusion that the biggest factor is that players are using the wrong tees. For too many, it’s considered unmanly to hit from anything but the blue tees. But that just lengthens the course. To have a decent second shot, players have to swing from the heels off the tee, making it more likely that their balls will be off line, in the rough, into hazards, or just lost completely. That adds time. Playing from the wrong tees also means that the second shot will be longer than necessary, making it less likely the player will hit the green, requiring additional shots and additional time. And even if the player hits the green, it’s unlikely to be near the pin, requiring extra putts—and extra time.
Course owners and designers also haven’t done anyone any favors. Perhaps catering to players who expect a serious challenge for their mediocre skills, owners and architects seem to revel in offering “championship courses,” with a design fit for the next USGA championship. No new course or renovation I’ve seen has offered “player friendly design.” Championship course to me just means slow play from average players in above their heads on the blue tees.
Fixing the problem doesn’t require genius. In the short term, courses should surreptitiously push the tees up during peak play hours. Set the blue closer to the whites, and the whites more near the reds. In the long run, courses need to add additional tees, and identify the areas where players are most likely to lose their balls—then soften it up.
A course I played this week apparently has just done that. In years past, there were several areas that were madly overgrown with prairie grasses and weeds, precisely positioned to swallow up balls. I was pleasantly surprised this year to find that those areas had been mowed and seeded. I’m certain that it was done with an eye to speeding up play. That track has had a reputation in years past for slow play. And in my estimation, the holes affected by the newly widened fairways were a major part of the problem.
Our foursome played that course in just over four hours.