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PETALUMA

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.

"My sister is a terrible golfer," Toivola said, "but she is quick. She likes the idea she can use the same club five times in a row. She's quick because she wants to have fun."

And she knows she is not playing in the U.S. Open. If there's anything that makes the shoulders sag and the wish they could be anywhere else, it's a competent golfer approaching a tee box, waiting for the last golfer of that foursome to tee off and then being presented with this sight ...

"This guy had 200 yards ahead of him," Toivola said. "He was studying his shot and looking down the fairway over and over and then ... he swung and hit the ball 20 yards."

It's enough for a golfer to swallow a golf tee just to put himself out of his misery.

"Jack Nicklaus said it best," said Frank Lynch, retired Petaluma High principal. "Unless you are a scratch golfer, everyone hits from the white tees."

The white or red tees are closest to a hole. The black or blue tees are the farthest. Nicklaus is spot-on, except for this one thing. The black or blue tees are the tee spot for men, real men flush with testosterone.

"To eliminate that (macho)," Ellison said, "some places now refer to the white tees as the forward tees."

When I said "weekend" to the 11 golfers Thursday, it was like I said, "Please eat this bottle of habanero peppers."

"I'll never play on the weekends," Lynch said. "Never."

Crowds don't bother Lynch. Golfers who move as fast as glaciers do. And there's at least one in every crowd.

"They'll stand over the putt for five minutes," said Rob Ostrowski, an auto mechanic from Rohnert Park.

"I can see doing that to win a million dollars," Steve Lamb of Petaluma said. "But for a five-dollar Nassau? That's ridiculous."

The rub with all is asking the tortoise get a move on. Golfers who are oblivious to those around them tend not to be the most sensitive of individuals. If there's a beer or two involved, if the day is warm, if the tortoise is on his way to shooting 120, hostilities may ensue. So the brain-dead tortoise, sadly, will get away with it most of the time.

"I paid my money and I'll play the way I want to play!" Lynch said. "That's at the center of it."

So what do you do? Maybe their electric cart breaks down. Saving that, Ostrowski opts for a centuries-old solution to stress.

"I grab a beer," he said.

A fast round pleases a golfer. A fast round that offers some success is even better.

"Make the hole bigger, maybe half again as much," Lamb said.

In that last sentence lies the Truth of Truth. Ninety-nine point nine percent of the players who play Rooster or Foxtail or Bennett Valley are not going to college on a golf scholarship and aren't on their way to get their PGA Tour Card. It's recreational golf out there. It's amateur, very amateur golf for a bunch of people who want to take a break from Instagram.

"Why not play the winter rules in the summer?" said Jerry Croteau of Vancouver, British Columbia, another Snoopy hockey player. "Go ahead and give your a ball a little bump with your foot! This is supposed to be fun, isn't it?"

Ellison had a lot of fun Thursday. He went through 18 holes in three hours, the back nine in 75 minutes. He was in golf heaven, a great day in the Sonoma County sun without feeling like he was waiting for a bus that was late.

As opposed to ...

"I was at the Sonoma Golf Club once and it took me three hours to play seven holes," said Ellison, 68, a twice-a-week player. "I walked right off the course. I'll never go back."

What frustrates the experienced recreational golfer is that none of this slow play has to take place.

"A golfer will approach a hole and not see where the path is to the next hole," Don Meroff of Novato said. "He'll drop his cart at the front of the green, which is usually opposite where he will exit. He'll go to the green, make his putt, then walk back to the front of the green to get his cart. Then he'll walk around the entire green to exit. He could have saved time if he just placed the cart where he's leaving."

That may not sound like much but take that scenario and multiply it by 18. Then add standing over a putt like Tiger Woods at the Masters. Add talking on the cell phone, smoking a cigarette, stopping to tell the greatest joke ever and waiting for your 10-year-old to hit his eighth shot from the fairway.

It will be about that time a golfer will find a shady tree for comfort and seclusion.

All this could have been prevented if the tortoise had used common sense. Look around. See the crowd behind you gnawing on their clubs. It's not that difficult to understand. All one needs to do is use common sense. It can't be that hard, can it?

"You would think," San Rafael schoolteacher Tom Kernan said. "You would think."

You can reach Staff Columnist Bob Padecky at 521-5223 or bob.padecky@pressdemocrat.com.