Traffic Jams on the course
Almost every golfer I know is concerned about slow play. There
many reasons for it. A lot of the blame goes to golfers who
aren't ready to hit when it is there turn, but not all of it.
who regularly drives on a crowded freeway frequently experiences
jams. Everyone on the road is moving as fast as they can and
on the bumper of the car in front, but doing so doesn't really help
move faster, and the time to drive 10 miles can go from 10 minutes to
hour very easily without anyone on the road being to blame. What
rarely realize is that this same kind of traffic jam can happen on a
course, stretching the time for a round from 3-1/2 or 4 hours up to 5
even 6 hours.
What causes backups
Traffic backups basically occur whenever you have more people arriving
than leaving. It could be cars on a freeway, people waiting to
an ATM, water flowing into a sink with a slow drain, or even golfers on
golf course. On a typical weekday afternoon in a city, more cars
entering the outbound freeways than are passing the city limits as they
When this happens, the "extra" cars simply back up on the
lengthening the time it takes each car entering the freeway to get
Exactly the same thing happens on the golf course whenever the
of tee times is such that golfers are being put on the course faster
they can play through some point on the course.
What determines capacity?
On a freeway, a key factor in traffic jams is the capacity of the road
carry traffic. This is in essence the number of cars per hour
can move through a point on the road. If cars enter the freeway
than this, it backs up. For a freeway it's determined by the
of lanes, the spacing between cars, and the speed of the road.
a golf course, the equivalent is how many groups can play through a
hole in an hour, which is determined by the time between when the group
front clears a particular spot (the green or maybe the fairway off the
and when your group manages to clear the same spot for the group
The slowest such time on the course for any spot on the course
determine how many groups per hour the course can handle without
To see this, let's say the slowest spot on the course to play past --
the green of a long par 3, takes 12 minutes on average for a group to
past. By this I mean that once the group ahead finishes the hole
takes your group 12 minutes to hit 4 tee shots, play to the green, putt
move out of the way so the next group can hit. This means that 5
per hour will move past this hole. If the tee times are spaced 12
apart, 5 groups per hour will enter the course, and will be able
move past the "bottleneck" hole, and nobody spends a lot of time
Ever seen a course with 12 minute tee time spacings? I
which is a major reason why traffic jams occur. If the course has
minute spacing, 6 groups will be put on the course every hour, but only
will get past the bottleneck. The extra group simply contributes
a lengthening backup.
The slowest hole to play through isn't always at a par 3.
could occur at a long par 4 or a reachable par 5. The resulting
doesn't always occur right behind it. If the slow hole is a par 4
5, it is likely that the backup will occur at the tee, because groups
waiting to tee off for a group waiting in the fairway for those ahead
play the rest of the hole, putt out, and move away.
Backups and playing time.
The backup translates directly into longer playing times. If
was waiting at the bottleneck at the beginning of the day, after an
there would be one group waiting, 2 groups after 2 hours, 3 after 3
etc. Each extra group waiting lengthens the time it takes
behind them to play a round. If the first group of the day plays
4 hours, starting an hour later will take 4:12, 2 hours later 4:24,
No wonder early morning tee times are popular! On a real
things won't always be this bad. Specifically if a tee time is
filled, it removes one waiting group. If some times are taken by
or threesomes who play through the slow point faster, it will reduce
tendancy to back up. On a fully booked Saturday AM, though, it's
virtual certainty that those teeing off at 11 will take an hour longer
finish than the first group off at 6.
The Shotgun death march.
Ever played in an event with a shotgun start that took forever to
finish? Most of us have, and it takes forever to finish even if
you are playing in a "fast" format. The bottleneck theory here
will tell you why. Most courses consider a "full" field for a
shotgun even to be 144 players, 2 foursomes on each hole, or 36 groups
total. Now as those people go around the course, all 36 groups
must get past whatever bottleneck is the slowest to play through.
Let's say that's 10 minutes, not a bad time at all for 4 people to play
a long par 3. Guess what, 36 groups at 10 minutes each is 6 hours
to get through that point. Excruciating. In fact, for a
full shotgun field to finish in 4 hours, the slowest hole must play no
slower than 240 minutes/36 groups, or 6 minutes and 40 seconds.
That's completely unrealistic, which is why most big shotguns are on
the course closer to 6 hours or more than 4. The good news here
is that there's a simple solution -- just don't put as many groups on
the course! Reduce the number to 24 groups and 10 minutes is fast
How do you eliminate backups?
The backup is created whenever more groups enter the course than can
through the bottleneck. To solve the problem we have to change
rate at which new groups start, or the rate at which they move through
Some cities try to limit jams on their freeways by placing traffic
on the entrance ramps and limiting how many cars can enter the freeway
rush hour. It works up to a point, though if more commuters want
leave the city it may just shift the backup from the freeway to the
streets approaching the freeway. Tee times serve the same purpose
a golf course. By spacing out the groups starting, even if the
hole can be played quickly, the course operator insures that people can
through the whole course without backups. If they don't do
and let people tee off as soon as the group ahead is out of the way,
extra groups allowed onto the course will contribute to a backup later
This is very apparent on one course I play (St Andrews course 2
West Chicago). Tee times are spaced 7 minutes apart -- way too
and the first hole is a very easy not quite reachable par 4, while the
hole is a very difficult and slow to play par 3. It's not
to find 5 groups waiting on the second tee, and probably no accident
the "half way house" is right next to that tee.
Course operators need to recognize this function of tee times, and
the temptation to squeeze a few more groups on, realizing that the
greens fees won't be worth the lost business they get when everyone
a lot of time waiting as a result.
Speeding up play through the bottleneck
Spacing tee times at 12 minute intervals may result in faster play, but
golfers will get to play if that's the case and few course operators
do it. The only other alternative is figure out how to get more
through the bottleneck. One factor is simply how fast the groups
the hole. There are many ways to help speed up the slow hole:
- Making golfers aware of the problem can help. If the
know that completing this hole promptly is important they will be less
to waste time.
- Avoid distractions on the problem hole. Put the bathrooms
the tee of the hole after, so players won't be in the bathroom not
to hit when their time comes. It's probably a good idea to avoid
the beer cart stop on the problem hole. I'm not suggesting
discomfort as a motivator to finish, but simply that time spent in the
or ordering drinks during the play of this hole will make it take
- Help players know where to leave carts or bags where they won't
time retrieving them. Often the slow hole is a place where
don't know where they are going next and leave bags or carts where they
to walk back to them and then walk on to the next hole, delaying the
behind. Anything that can be done to speed up groups leaving the
- Making the hole easier. Golf courses need challenging
but nobody wants to wait while the group ahead spends 5 minutes combing
high grass in a futile search. Areas where golfers are unlikely
balls quickly should be marked as hazards to encouarge golfers to drop
move on. Architects may want to rethink whether there is really a
purpose served by putting the nastiest bunkers and the most difficult
green on the longest par 3.
- Rangers to the rescue? Many golf courses hire rangers or
marshals (or to use the more modern term "player assistants") to try to
keep things moving. Often these people are ineffective because it
seems there's litle they can do except ask people to play faster.
The slow hole though is one place where they can make a
difference. No matter how much information you give golfers,
having someone there to watch them and help them find their shots,
remind them where to park the cart, etc. can help a lot. If the
problem hole is a reachable par 5, a Marshal may be able to help
people make a realistic assessment of their odds of reaching a green
and not wait to hit when 300 yards out. Marshals can also help
make waving the next group up (see next section) work.
How about waving the next group up?
There's a lot of debate over the wisdom of having each group allow the
behind to hit up before they finish. The common strategy here is
each group to wave the group behind up when all of them have reached
green. Does this help? The answer isn't simple, and the
may be usually and marginally. To understand this you have to
how long it takes for each group to play each step of the hole.
say the bottleneck hole takes 12 minutes to play that breaks down as
2 minutes to tee off, 4 minutes to move from tee to the area of
green, 2 minutes to pitch any shots that missed onto the green, and 4
to putt out and move away. Now a naive view would be that
the next group to hit can't work, since It looks like this will add 2
(the time spent waiting for the group behind to hit) to the time.
Unfortunately it's not that simple, since it also enables the group
to start on their time playing a little faster. To understand
happening, you have to look at the time interval between when one group
and the next group finishes. Without hitting up, that was 12
With hitting up, by the time one group finishes the group behind
already teed off and spent 4 minutes walking up to the hole, so what
is 2 minutes hitting onto the green, 2 minutes waiting for the group
and 4 minutes putting out, or 8 minutes total. So, in this case
hitting up will help a lot, reducing the time to play the bottleneck by
Of course this is probably a very optimistic example. Many
influence how good hitting up will be:
Hitting up is, though, almost always going to result in faster play
- If most groups are riding, moving from tee to green is faster
not as much as you might think because it often takes a while for 4
to holster their clubs, climb in, and drive off.)
- If most people hit the green, there can be extra time spent
and replacing balls. (though remember, the backup hole is usually
where people have to wait for the green to clear but rarely hit it -- a
par 3 or par 4, or a reachable par 5.)
A variant of this strategy which I've almost never seen suggested is to
have two groups hit to the hole at once, then play out in order.
This is less disruptive than waving the next group up, since nobody
has to walk off the green and watch for incoming shots. Again, this
works by overlapping the time it takes everyone to saddle up and get to
the green, as well as some of the time the second group takes to
prepare for their next shot (i.e. the members of the second group find
their balls, select their clubs and prepare to hit while the first
group is playing out.
Parallel holes -- a radical solution.
One solution I've rarely seen is to remove the bottleneck
by building two holes groups alternate in playing. Say the
is number 3. The course has "number 3" holes, 3A and 3B, and
1 plays 3A, group 2 plays 3B, group 3 playce 3A, etc. This is
adding a lane to a freeway and essentially doubles the capacity through
bottleneck, making it unlikely backups will occur there. While
is an excellent solution technically, it's not likely to be a popular
both because the land required for parallel holes is expensive and the
for the players can be problematic -- what if a group of players
to hold a competition on that hole and they don't all play the same
one? Still, it's been tried (Some of the Cog Hill courses
have parallel par 3's to avoid backups). Mostly though this
is not the kind of thing a course designer usually thinks about when
laying out a new course. (Cog Hill was built by a man