If you were USGA commissioner for a day and you could wave your magic wand and change whatever you thought necessary to improve public golf, what would you do?
When I asked 11 golfers that question at Rooster Run on Thursday, no one said, "The game is fine. Leave it the way it is." To be fair, opinions in sports are like noses. Everyone has one. And some golfers had really big noses, really big. Take Steve Ellison's — his opinion, not his nose.
"This guy hits a tee shot, watches the ball and then goes to his golf bag," said the legendary, now retired football coach from Petaluma High. "He's fumbling around in his golf bag. He finally produces a pack of cigarettes. He takes one out, lights it and then stares down the fairway."
The smoker didn't grab his cart and go down the fairway. The smoker stood there, admiring the scenery, a beautiful day for a stroll with a golf club it was, puffing away ... boy, is Sonoma County gorgeous.
Waiting for the smoker to clear the tee box so he could hit, Ellison could have ground coffee, his teeth so tightly clenched, moving sideways in agitation. So when it came to offering an opinion on how to improve golf, Ellison said the same thing that Harri Toivola of Seattle said. A hockey player in town competing in the Snoopy tournament, Toivola had the most logical, common sense idea. In fact, Toivola's idea should be considered mandatory by the USGA.
"You're a beginner and you want to learn how to play golf?" Toivola said. "Great. Good. Here's what you do. Go play a par-3 course a bunch of times. Learn the etiquette involved in the game."
I'll take it one step further. Upon arrival for the first time at a par-71, 6,464-yard layout like Rooster Run, show the pro at the golf shop what I will call your Practice Card. You took and passed that one-hour etiquette class. You played a par-3 course three times. You are now qualified to go to Rooster and shoot a 100 without causing civil unrest.
Of all suggestions offered as improvement, the issue of slow play was the most discussed. The USGA announced an initiative a month ago for golfers and golf pros to speed up the game. Golf is a contemplative pursuit but standing over a putt a golfer shouldn't appear to be studying the Dead Sea Scrolls. As the golfers spoke, their levels of exasperation matched and sometimes even exceeded that feeling of seeing their cars overheating in rush-hour traffic.
"I get a rhythm going and then all of a sudden I have to stop and wait," said Kirk Furlong, a Petaluma bartender. "That's when I have to think. And thinking on a golf course always gets me in trouble. When you don't, you play each shot right after another and you don't have to dwell or pause. If I'm just standing there, waiting, I'll analyze over and over what I just did wrong."
Of course, using the word "etiquette" creates an Emily Post vision of properly extended pinkies while sipping from a cup of espresso. That disarms a sense of urgency on the golf course. That is unfortunate labeling, in fact. The term "golf etiquette" should be rephrased to "common sense," this notion that you are aware you are not the only golfer on the course. A tortoise should give way to the rabbit.