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Golf Notes January 8

Slow play the bane of the PGA Tour

Paul Azinger was nearly apoplectic when Rory Sabbatini - who is scheduled to play in today's Willowbend Children's Charity Pro-Am - staged his one-man protest against slow play on the 17th green in the final round of the recent Booz Allen Classic.

All Sabbatini did was putt out and go to the 18th tee before Ben Crane finally meandered up to the green. But in golf circles, at least the ones Azinger runs in, his breach of conduct was akin to burning the flag.

''As inconsiderate as anything I've seen,'' sniffed Azinger, who as a television commentator now fancies himself as one of the guardians of the game. Sabbatini, he said, has ''gone psycho. That's crazy!''

Good thing Azinger wasn't around Fulton Allem a few years ago when Allem, disgusted over the pokey play of Bob Estes, left him a parting message when they finished 18 holes.

''You are too slow,'' Allem wrote across Estes' scorecard.

Golf, of course, is the ultimate gentleman's game. No one speaks ill of his fellow player, disputes are settled behind closed doors and everyone makes up over a snifter of brandy.

It doesn't always work that way, of course, but the people who run the PGA Tour and the players themselves try their best to pretend they're one big happy family with only the good of golf - not the millions they're making - foremost in their minds.

That's why Phil Mickelson blamed the press for cooking up stories about tension between himself and Vijay Singh at the Masters. This was a day after Mickelson issued a statement saying he and Singh had a confrontation in the champion's locker room over the length of Phil's spikes.

Sabbatini's conduct at Congressional Country Club was remarkable, coming on a Sunday before a national television audience. He couldn't have aired the tour's dirty laundry any better than if he had strung it out on a line in front of the White House.

Of course, the knee-jerk reaction of Azinger and others was to bash Sabbatini for violating golf etiquette. And it didn't take long for Sabbatini to issue a statement saying he had reacted ''inappropriately.''

OK, so maybe you shouldn't leave your playing partner and stroll onto the next hole. But anyone who has suffered through 5½-hour rounds at the local muni on a Saturday can certainly sympathize with being stuck with the notoriously slow Crane.

It didn't help that Sabbatini had already been paired with Crane on Thursday and Friday, then found himself in the group behind him Saturday. This is a guy who, in Las Vegas a few years ago, actually pulled out his yardage book and studied the contours sketched in it before putting.

''I need to work on picking it up,'' Crane admitted.

He does, and he's not alone. The tour is full of players who aren't much quicker. And, if walking off on your playing partner is a breach of etiquette, playing at a snail's pace is even worse.

Look at the USGA rulebook and there's almost an entire page devoted to the proper pace of play. ''Play at a good pace and keep up,'' one blue headline reads. ''Be ready to play,'' says another.

''At the end of the day, slow play is the bane of the game,'' USGA executive director David Fay said.

Ultimately, the responsibility for slow play rests with the PGA Tour, which talks a good game but seldom does anything about it. Players are put on the clock and warned if they get behind, with the vague threat of a possible fine if they do it too much.

But, as Allem once said, that's like a highway patrolman pulling a car over for doing 100 mph and telling the driver he'll be watching him the next three miles and give him a ticket if he does it again.

Want to get tough with players? Start passing out two-stroke penalties every time a group falls too far behind. Make them finish under a certain time or add a stroke to their score for every 15 minutes they go over.

The trickle-down effect would be immediate. Players would stop reading putts from 14 different directions, stop taking repeated practice swings, and stop throwing grass in the air to see if the wind has changed in the last 10 seconds.

Even better for golf, the guys in the foursome in front of you at your favorite course might stop doing the same things.


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