Thousands of US golfers are carrying a new item in their pockets when they head to the first tee this season: a mini GPS tracker.
Along with a scorecard, pencil and tees, a lipstick-sized tracking unit will be stuffed into the pockets of shorts and pants as the US Golf Association embarks on a three-month project to track the exact movements and playing habits of golfers to prod them to play faster.
The goal, the USGA says, is to come up with data to address the perception that the sport's four-hour, 22-minute average round is too big a time commitment. The data gathered might one day lead to course owners widening fairways or changing start times to speed things up.
"There is increasing tension between the amount of time people have for recreational activities and the amount of time that it takes to play golf," said Rand Jerris, senior managing director of public services for the USGA. "Whether it's true or not, the perception that it takes too much time is preventing people from entering the game."
Golf in the US is wrestling with an exodus from the sport. About 400,000 American players quit golfing last year, according to the National Golf Foundation. While almost 260,000 women took up golf, some 650,000 men gave it up.
The $125,000 data-gathering program is being funded by Chevron. The Far Hills, New Jersey-based USGA will use eight interns from its P.J. Boatwright Jr internship program to collect data during a wide variety of events at 30 to 40 US courses this summer.
In total, about 6,500 rounds will be tracked at each course between mid-May and August, giving the group about 26,000 rounds of data to analyse.
Engineers at USGA headquarters, led by technical Director Matt Pringle, will then analyse the player-tracking data as a way to better understand golfers' behaviours, course set-up and design features and the effect they have on the pace of play.
"There's a lot of conventional wisdom, but we're sitting here in 2014 and by all accounts pace-of-play is still a major problem in golf," Pringle, a 42-year-old Canadian with a PhD in engineering from Ontario's McMaster University, said in a telephone interview. "Clearly, it hasn't been addressed effectively."
A National Golf Foundation survey in 2012 showed that 58 per cent of avid golfers said 4 hours and 30 minutes is "too long." That's eight minutes longer than the average time the group found for a round on public US courses.
By addressing slow play with data, the USGA said it wants to improve the experience of golfers. In a separate 2013 National Golf Foundation survey, 91 per cent of serious golfers said they are bothered by slow play and 70 per cent said they believe the issue has worsened over time.
"We don't want golfers giving up the game because it takes 5 1/2 hours to play," Pringle said. "That's our one and only goal."
At most courses, the time it takes to play an 18-hole round of golf depends largely on the intervals at which players are sent onto the course, or flow-rate, the course's design and playing conditions, such as the speed of putting greens and length of the rough around the fairways.
If course managers don't allow enough time between groups, a backup quickly occurs, similar to when too many cars are funneled onto a highway too quickly.
"Golf courses have one on-ramp to their highway," said Bill Yates, the 69-year-old founder of Pace Manager Systems, a Pebble Beach, California-based company that helps golf courses improve their pace of play. "You can control that if you want to. Typically, everybody blames the players, but the way management sets up and manages the course has a lot to do with it. The data we get will help us see what knobs to turn to regulate it."
At Chambers Bay, an undulating, walking-only public course along the Puget Sound in University Place, Washington, the average round takes 4 hours and 45 minutes to play, according to Matt Allen, the course's general manager. With the course set to host next year's US Open, the USGA plans to track rounds at the course this summer.
"This should be very interesting stuff," Allen, 39, said. "How it gets implemented is another question, but it's definitely a worthy exercise."
Allen said he is most interested to see if players who use a caddie to carry their clubs play faster.
"We would hope that a caddie would improve the pace of play, but we don't know," he said. "If we found that the average round takes longer with a caddie, we could share that data with the caddies to help them speed up play."
While the USGA recently used the GPS devices to track the play of about 50 golfers during an event at Pinehurst Resort's No. 2 course, site of next week's men's and women's US Opens, the group said it doesn't plans to ask professional golfers to carry the devices. The group currently uses data provided by the US PGA Tour to analyse playing habits of professionals over 45 tournaments.
"We are more interested in helping the other 16,000 golf courses in the US," Pringle said. "Nobody has any data on this, which is why we are doing this. At the end, we can provide the golf world with the equations that add up to pace. If you change 'x' variable, you should expect this result. Hopefully that will translate into best practice and results."