I was stood on the 14th tee on a wet day in April when my playing partner sarcastically turned to me and said, ‘how long does it take to play 18 holes of golf?’ I smiled and trotted out the old line that it should take anywhere between 3.5 to 4 hours. This was ludicrous considering we were approaching our 5th (yep, you read that right) hour out on the course. I tried google but found the same answer repeated as if it was a decree handed down by the golfing gods that no-one could say anything other than 3.5 to 4 hours. So in 2019, I decided to conduct my own experiment over 100 rounds of golf to see how long a game of golf actually is. Here are my results.
So, how long does it take to play 18 holes of golf? A round with one person took an average of 2hours 48minutes. With two people, this only slightly increased to 2hours 57minutes. For three people, it took 3hours 44minutes and with four people it took (a very slow) 4hours 19minutes. In the table below we breakdown these results.
What do these results show?
The main takeaway from these results is that it is possible to play a ‘quick-round of golf’. We were able to play at a good pace some of the time regardless of the number of people in our party. However, these results also show that golf can really drag. The long rounds of 4 hours plus really did go on (and on). They became a choir and it is not a surprise that many people (especially young people) are turning away from the sport.
What the results don’t show is the story behind the numbers. After 100 rounds of monitoring the pace of play, we came up with some ideas on how the game could speed up without taking away from the traditions or etiquette of the game. After all, it is the spirt of golf which makes it so unique. After breaking down these results into more detail we will discuss our blueprint for speeding up golf.
The timings for a one or two-ball were quite quick. I found that the difference was very little which makes sense when you think about it. With a two-ball, you are almost able to play like a one-ball. The only time you are waiting on the other player is when they are ready to take their shot. In the meantime (such as when they are lining up a putt, or making practise swings) you can be on the move. Another benefit of a two-ball is that people are more willing to wave you through (this means that the group in front of you let you play ahead of them on a given hole because you are catching up to them).
I have always found a two-ball more relaxed than a three/four-ball which means that you can be more flexible with the rules of the round. For example, in our quickest rounds as a two-ball, we saved at least twenty minutes by allowing gimme puts of less than 3 feet. We also implemented a ‘play-when-ready’ rule rather than who was the furthest away. This helped us maintain the pace of the round. Allowing these little changes did not affect our scores or ruin the experience of the round; in many ways, it actually improved it.
However, not everyone is so happy amending the rules of the game – and I salute you for this. So, if you are a purist in the strictest sense it is still possible to play a full 18 holes as a one or two-ball in under 3 hours. Just make sure you walk at a brisk pace and don’t spend 5 minutes lining up a putt which you will make 99 times out of a 100.
For a three or four-ball golf, the timing of the round increased significantly. I must admit that on some of the really long four-ball rounds I began to question my sanity. The biggest issue with a three or four-ball is that it always feels like you are waiting for someone to practise a swing or to find their ball in the trees. For example, The average golfer loses 1.6 balls every round. With 4 people that is 6.4 balls per 18 holes. The rules of the game say that you can look for a golf ball for 3 minutes before it is deemed lost. That is an extra 20 minutes added to your round – just on looking for a golf ball.
Another issue with larger groups is that people are not so keen to wave you through. This is understandable but can certainly add time to your round, especially if you get stuck behind another slow four-ball.
Please do not think that I don’t enjoy playing as a three or four-ball because it is actually my favourite form of sport. There is nothing better than chewing the fat with your mates whilst playing a bit of golf. We found that our quickest rounds were when we played foursomes or four-ball better ball. These were also a lot of fun. Other easy things you can do include allowing gimmes, reducing the search time for lost balls to 2 minutes and implementing a shot clock penalty for those who insist on taking that extra practise swing.
Factors affecting how long it takes to play 18 holes of golf
A major factor increases in how long it takes to play a round of golf is groups not leaving enough time between the tee-off time of the group in front. Most courses will adopt a 15-minute window but without a ‘starter’ on the first tee, this is commonly ignored. To ensure a good pace of play is maintain all groups should respect the gap between tee-off times. If no gap is left, you will find a backlog begins to appear on tee-box at holes later in the round. Furthermore, playing before you allotted time will put pressure on the group in front which will dent their enjoyment and can actually lead to more delays due to rushed shots going astray.
As out experiment shows, the bigger the group the longer the round. If you a two-ball who is setting off behind several four-balls you will likely soon catch up and will be waiting around for the group in front to finish off holes. It is important to remember that this isn’t the fault of the group in front. They may be playing at a good pace but with two-extra players, there will always be some delay. Certain golf courses have begun pairing up groups of two to make a four-ball to prevent this from occurring. If you are a beginner and would prefer not to be paired up (I always dreaded this as a beginner) it may be worth asking the course if you can go out at quiet periods such as first thing in the morning or later on in the evening.
Depending on the course/resort set up there may be a halfway house. When groups spend time waiting on food or enjoying a cold beer halfway round this will inevitably have a knock-on effect on how long a round of golf takes. A good course will account for this in the starter gap and ensure there is a little longer between groups teeing off.
Using a buggy can increase the speed of play dramatically. A potential issue is when there are a mix and match with some groups walking and others using buggies. A buggy can be great for players who move slower and therefore can take longer than average to play the course. I have played some courses where buggies are obliged at peak times. This definitely improved the pace of play but I am slightly traditional in preferring a long walk with my golf.
Certain formats of golf are undoubtedly quicker than others. In a four-ball, you can play foursomes or better ball at a brisk pace. Strokeplay and matchplay are definitely the slowest. Many people don’t like playing a new format in case it takes away from the experience of the round. In my opinion, new formats can be a lot of fun and challenge your technique in a number of different ways. If it is insisted that you play a certain format (in a competition for example) then there are still things which you can to maintain a good pace of play but this will still be slower than some of the quicker formats on offer.
Playing off the wrong tees is a big issue which causes a huge increase in how long it takes to play 18 holes of golf. We all wish we were Dustin Johnson and could power a 350-yard drive from the blacks but the reality is only a select few can do this. The rest of us mere mortals should carefully consider whether we play to a high enough standard to do this. Remember, there is no honor in playing from the blacks when you drive the ball only 200 yards. All you are really doing is making your own round less enjoyable and causing delays for the players behind you.
The rules of golf were recently changed to reduce the amount of time you can spend looking for a ball from 5 minutes to 3 minutes. This was an extremely welcome change but more can be done. The average golfer loses 1.6 balls per round. This equates to 20-25 minutes per round lost looking for balls.
A contributing factor to this additional time spent looking for balls is the length of the rough. The longer the rough the more time is spent looking for the ball from wayward shots. Clubs are being encouraged to keep the rough a ‘fair’ length so to speed up play but this is not always possible after a period of bad weather. I always carry a couple of budget balls which I am not too attached to for those rounds where you just know (with golfs intuition) you will be losing a couple. That way, when you do put a couple in the rough you won’t feel too obliged to look for the ball for the allotted time (obviously, in a competition you should take your time and find your ball as this will affect your final score).
People often think of bad greens being a cause of slow play but the truth is that quick greens are more of an issue. With quick greens, you can putt passed the hole and off the green. We can all remember the scenes at Shinnecock in the US Open where the pros did this often (unless you take the Phil Mickelson ‘route’). There is no way to avoid this, just enjoy the round and remember that unless you are playing for money there is no harm in allowing your partner a gimme every now and again to speed up the rate of play.
For resort courses or municipals over a large area of land the distance between holes can add a huge amount of time to your round. A 5-minute walk to the next tee will add over an hour and a half to your round. This is a significant amount of time. Now, most courses are designed to minimise this and 5-minutes is an extreme example but the point stands. The distance between holes can add time to the length of the round.
We all love a challenge. It is why we love playing golf. Hazards can be great fun to navigate and the course layout keeps things interesting. The trade-off for this can be longer playing times. If you are constantly playing out of hazards or having to lay up because of the course layout you will find that your round does take longer to complete. Furthermore, the general difficulty of the course will affect the time it takes to play. A flat and gentle course will be a lot quicker to play than a championship course.
The weather can have an impact on the pace of play over 18 holes. If it is sunny and hot you may need to take more breaks, take on more fluid and as the round progresses you will slow down; this is only natural. In wet and windy weather, you will probably hit more erratic shots which will take time out of the game because you will need to look for balls. In my opinion, the weather is the weather. We can’t do anything about it but if you are aware of the possible impact of the particular weather you are facing then you can make adjustments accordingly.
If someone doesn’t want to play quickly and with fellow players in mind then the pace of the round will naturally be slower. Unfortunately, we all know golfers who play at a snail’s pace without any consideration for others. This behaviour can include taking an age over shots, walking slowly between shots and placing their bags on the incorrect side of the green. Golfers, as a fraternity, are very good at politely calling out this type of behaviour. Some courses even employ wardens or have volunteers who ensure that local customs are followed by all players.
Beginners will take longer to complete a round of golf than seasoned professionals. This is obvious when you think about it. If it takes 100 shots to play the course, this will take longer than going round in par. As golf lovers, we all have a responsibility to grow the game. Therefore, we need to be mindful that all people begin somewhere and their love for the game needs to be fostered and encouraged. If a beginner is really struggling, offer some tips and advice to help them out. This could be a technical thing or an etiquette point. I am sure a beginner would appreciate the help.
This is linked to the course layout but the position of the tees and the pins are worthy of a mention as a factor of their own. Tee positions can be set to make scoring difficult which can slow play for amateurs. In addition to this, tee positions which make the course longer will add time to the length of the round.
Tough pin positions will almost certainly add shots to your score. As we have noted several times, the higher the score the longer the round will be. This is especially true if these shots are chips and pitches which require a deft touch around the green.
Ways to reduce how long it takes to play 18 holes of golf a round of golf
If you are asking, ‘how long does it take to play 18 holes of golf?’ the next question is almost certainly going to be, ‘how do I reduce this?’. Below we discuss some proven methods of speeding up the pace of play.
A starter gap is when the course leaves empty tee slots throughout the day. This helps to prevent a delay caused by one group filtering through the rest of the day. This is an unpopular choice amongst corporate courses who are looking to maximise revenue but the added golfing experience will almost certainly get people returning to the course at a later date. I find that the best courses (the ones worth paying top dollar for) include this as a way of minimising time delays and reducing the total length of time playing.
A great way to reduce the number of breaks and stoppages in play is to have multiple starting points on the course. If done sensibly, this can be used to set off different sized groups so that they do not end up getting in each other’s way.
As our experiment shows, the bigger the group the longer a round takes. If courses wanted to reduce the number of stoppages and to lessen the time it takes to play then reducing then limiting the number of players in a group at peak times would certainly assist with this.
If courses refuse to restrict the number of players in a group then another way of maintaining a consistent pace of play is to mix up different groups so that only four-balls are on the course. This may not reduce the time spent on the course but it will feel a lot less as you will be active at all times rather than spending time waiting on the tee-box for the group in front to finish off.
This is an idea which is gaining traction across the golfing world. Having dedicated tee-times for different abilities, group sizes and for the ladies is a simple and easy way to increase tee-times by taking pressure off during peak periods. I get the sense that having dedicated tee-times would also make the game more attractive to beginners who often feel the pressure of slow play.
A time par is where a club would give a recommended time to play each hole. If a group consistently shoot over par (i.e. take too long) on the course they can be asked to speed up or even skip some of the longer holes to make up time. I have played in time par conditions but I will be honest that it wasn’t the most effective method of speeding up time as it wasn’t tracked or enforced. It seems to me that those members who will be conscientious enough to play at a good pace do not need to be made aware of any time par.
Course staff and volunteer members could be used at various bottlenecks to ensure speed of play is maintained. This is extremely effective during weekend golf when courses are packed with members and community players.
Communicating with players about their responsibility to play the course at a decent pace is something which cannot hurt when trying to keep playing moving. Furthermore, good communication could be used to warn players of hot spots around the course and potential issues with large groups going out before your tee-time. This is something which has improved over the last few years with many clubs utilising electronic boards and social media to inform their members of course conditions and pace of play.
Courses could consider enforcing penalties for slow play. This would act as a deterrent for those who are taking for too long over shots. Penalties could include for example players being asked to leave the course or requiring attendance at a session on how to improve their pace of play. If a course goes down this route it must also look to incentivise quick play. This could be a free drink in the bar for rounds under a certain time or money off the next round if players maintain good speed.
Simply put, courses should make sure they have a variety of tee positions for all ages, genders and abilities. Allowing people to play golf to their own standard will increase the pace and enhance the golfing experience for everyone.
A really avoidable time delay can be looking for the next tee-box. This is especially important on big courses or ones with an unusual layout. This will help members and community players alike.
Golfers should be encouraged to maintain pace with the group in front. Ideally, as one group finished another should be primed and ready to tee-off. If this is not the case, and large gaps begin to appear course marshalls should not be afraid to request a group move through a hole to get back on track with the group in front.
This is an easy win for players who want to speed up a round of golf. If you are playing Stableford it would be a good idea if players who had no chance of scoring picking up their ball. This would keep the pace of play moving; especially if everyone on the course followed this rule.
This means that golfers ensure, as long as it is safe to do so, that they are ready to make their next shot whilst they are waiting for other players. This means a player assessing and deciding on their next shot, making a decision on club selection or lining up a putt whilst allowing others to make theirs.
This is different from ready to play golf. Ready golf means that you forgo the traditional ‘furthest from the hole’ rule and instead players play when they are ready (providing it is safe to do so) regardless of course position. Ready golf also covers a player playing their ball before helping other players to look for any lost balls from misplaced shots. It is worth noting that this form of golf is not appropriate for match play where shot order is an important proponent of the game.
This is a real bug-bear of mine. When you are on the green, players should ensure that they place their bags in the general direction of the next tee-box. Doing this will ensure a quick exit is made from the green which will allow groups behind to prepare and play their next shot. We did an unofficial test of this during one of our rounds and found it shaved 10-15 minutes off our round time which, along with other methods, is not to be sniffed at.
This one is a tough rule to enforce but would have a huge impact on the pace of play. If four-balls were told not to play strokeplay at peak times, or if at peak times all groups were required to play a quicker format, you would see a huge amount of time saved.
There are a few ways to speed up a round of golf through lost ball protocols.
Firstly, a local rule could be introduced at busy periods to reduce the time allowed to search for a ball from 3-to-2 minutes. Another rule could be to encourage players to hit provisional shots when they fear a lost ball. This would prevent players from having to return to the tee-box to hit another ball if theirs is actually lost. Finally, all players in a group should keenly watch all shots to give players the best chance of quickly finding balls from erratic shots.
What have the rule-makers done to speed up golf?
Players should recognise that their pace of play affects others and they should play promptly throughout the round. For example, they should prepare in advance for each stroke and move promptly between strokes and in going to the next tee.
A player should make a stroke in no more than 40 seconds – and usually less – after they are able to play without interference or distraction.
Committees should adopt a Pace of Play Policy.
Rule 6.4 will expressly allow playing out of turn by agreement in match play. In stroke play, it will affirmatively allow and encourage players to play out of turn in a safe and responsible way to save time or for convenience.
The time for a ball search, before the ball becomes lost, will be reduced from five minutes to three minutes.
How did we conduct this experiment?
My brother Ned and I played 100 rounds of golf over the space of a year. Each round was timed from the moment the first tee-shot was made to the last put was sank. We played 25 rounds as a one-ball, two-ball, three-ball or four-ball. Each round was played on a par-70 plus course with a total length of between 5,000-7,000 yards. All players had to walk the course and no-buggies were allowed. We played a variety of formats to gauge whether there was a noticeable effect on the amount of time it takes to play the different types of golf. We used strokeplay for at least 50% of the rounds for each block of 25. The lowest handicap player to be included in this experiment was 7 and the highest was 22.