- Associated Press - Friday, July 15, 2011

SANDWICH, ENGLAND (AP) - His shots weren’t great, but at least they were quick. In fact, if Rory McIlroy’s pace on the British Open’s first day had to be described in one word, it would be “speedy.” And that is no small mercy in a sport that can sometimes feel as painfully slow as water torture.

We can leave for another day the debate about whether the rapidity with which McIlroy selects and makes his shots and putts also is one of the reasons he is so good. In being so quick, it might be that he doesn’t leave time for creeping doubt, doesn’t overthink and trusts his fine golfing instincts. But playing like Speedy Gonzales doesn’t work for everyone. Jack Nicklaus is among those who didn’t like to be rushed, and taking his time certainly didn’t seem to hurt the 18-time major winner.

Still, to test the theory that Rory Make-It-Quick could or should be a model for golfing snails to emulate, I decided to gauge his opening round at Royal St. George’s not by the usual yardstick of birdies and bogeys, but with a stopwatch.

Over the first eight holes, I timed his tee shots and putts, but not his shots from the fairway or chips out of the rough, for the simple reason that it’s harder to establish at exactly which point the buildup to those shots _ and thus the stopwatch _ begins.

Nor was this exact science, because it is tough to have the precision of a lab experiment when you are kneeling in damp, deep grass under the mournful, spitting sky in southeast England.

But the results were clear nonetheless: McIlroy doesn’t hang around, and his hit-and-walk style makes him a pleasure to watch, even when his shots aren’t falling as sweetly as they did when he crushed the field at the U.S. Open. His play looks decisive because it’s rapid. That makes it exciting. It is, in short, golf as it should be.

His first eight tee shots _ timed from the moment he planted his tee in the turf to him thwacking the ball _ took, on average, about 19 seconds. The longest tee shot, 25 seconds, was on the par-4 first hole where he made bogey. The shortest, 14 seconds, was on the seventh where he made par.

He averaged about 23 seconds for each of his 13 putts over the first eight holes (that was at least three putts more than he would have liked). McIlroy generally doesn’t spend an eternity figuring out the lie of the green or practicing shots over and over before making them. When Ernie Els and Rickie Fowler, his partners, were playing, McIlroy seemed often to be thinking about or preparing his next shot, so that when his turn came, he was ready _ as any courteous golfer should be.

Although I didn’t time him as consistently as McIlroy, Els often looked the slowest of their threesome. His first putt on the No. 3 took 45 seconds, long enough for McIlroy to watch a bird wing past and to squeeze out a little yawn. Els took a minute over his putt on the next hole, and still pushed the ball 6 feet past the cup. No one would accuse Els of being among golf’s slow players. It was more that his playing partners are unusually quick.

Jim McArthur, chair of the championship committee for the Royal & Ancient, said one cause of slow play is that some players “are coached into a routine, and irrespective of what the situation is, they’ve got to go through their routine and if something breaks that routine, then they’ve got to go back to the beginning and start the whole thing again.”

What a bore for the rest of us.

Another cause, McArthur added, is that “people are not ready to play” when their turn comes.

McIlroy seems to suffer neither of those ailments.

Rory is a very quick player,” R&A chief Peter Dawson said. “The fact that the players at the top of the rankings today fortunately are, by and large, quick players is going to make people think about this.”

Players risk penalties for truly slow play if they ignore officials’ efforts to pick up the pace. Romain Wattel was fined $6,400 last week at the Scottish Open for being deemed too slow for a third time this season. On the European Tour, there have been 19 instances of snail-ish players receiving a stroke penalty since 1998, most recently Gregory Bourdy at the 2010 PGA Championship, the tour says. The R&A says that hasn’t happened at the British Open since 2004.

Even with the quick play of McIlroy and Fowler (also no slouch), the threesome with Els on Thursday still overshot by about 15 minutes the 4 1/2 hours that the R&A is scheduling for each of the first two rounds this week. That was partly because they were repeatedly held up by the threesome in front of them.

Quick play is a McIlroy family trait, says both Rory’s uncle, Colm, and his coach from boyhood, Michael Bannon.

“His dad plays fast, it’s in their nature, he tees up and hits it and it’s the sort of thing that Rory would never want to get rid of. That’s his natural way of doing it,” Bannon said in an Associated Press interview before McIlroy’s record-breaking romp last month at Congressional.

“It’s kind of a gift, too, because I always feel that if you stand over it too long you make yourself nervous.”

Hear that, you golfing slow-coaches out there? Quicker golf isn’t only more attractive, it could maybe make you a better player, too.

___

John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him at https://twitter.com/johnleicester

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