There was an odd and interesting pairing last Saturday at the Players: Angel Cabrera, the XL-sized Masters champion who, in the tradition of John Daly and Craig Stadler, plays superfast golf, and the superslender Kevin Na, a 25-year-old Californian who calibrates and analyzes and goes through a checklist before making a swing, in the tradition of Ben Crane and Sean O'Hair.
Cabrera, from Argentina, speaks limited English, and there was almost no conversation between the two golfers, but Na had no problem figuring out what was on Cabrera's mind. More than once Cabrera gave Na the international signal for Your play is too slow: marching briskly ahead the nanosecond after the other guy has played his shot.
"I could tell that he was getting frustrated," Na said on Sunday, after tying for third, "but there wasn't anyplace for us to go. I tried to tell him that. The right pace is when you're keeping up with the group in front of you, and that's what we were doing. I think he was frustrated because he was playing so poorly." Cabrera shot 77 in the third round and closed with a 71 to finish 14th.
Slow play is the bottomless pit of golf topics, one that gets discussed constantly, like the weather, but about which nothing is ever done. Last week at the Players, without the wind ever really coming up, the pace of play was glacial. The Thursday and Friday rounds, played in threesomes, typically took 5 1/2 hours to play. On Sunday, when 70 of the best golfers in the world played in twosomes, rounds still routinely took more than four hours. The slow play made the telecast feel sluggish. In the hot weather especially, slow play gave the crowd behind the 17th tee more reason to focus on drink and less reason to stay involved in the golf.
An official put Ian Poulter and Brian Davis on the clock on Sunday, as they played the par-5 9th-hole, for being out of position: They were eight minutes behind the group in front of them. The twosome then proceeded to play the 9th in an eagle (Davis) and a birdie (Poulter), and by the par-5 11th they had to wait six minutes before teeing off. "It was a kind of frustrating situation to be put on the clock for two [holes]," Poulter said, "but I guess there was a hole clear, and the official was doing his job."
On the LPGA tour, officials have figured out an effective way to get players to play more quickly: penalize them not with modest fines but by adding strokes. On the PGA Tour, officials have the right to assess a stroke after a player receives two bad times in a single round, but Bush 41 was president the last time such a penalty was invoked.
In the meantime Na was asked if he had learned anything by playing with the 2009 Masters champion, about speed of play or otherwise.
"He's a big guy," Na said pleasantly, "who hits it a mile."