At British Open, they’re keeping a close eye on the clock

GULLANE, SCOTLAND – When Hideki Matsuyama and Johnson Wagner got to the 15th hole Saturday at Muirfield, they were informed that they were not keeping up with the pace of play, that each of their shots would be timed, and if they twice violated the policy, they would receive a one-shot penalty.

Matsuyama, a 21-year-old from Japan, took one minute and 12 seconds over his first putt on the 15th green — and was warned. Then, at the par-5 17th, he hit an errant tee shot. When he took, by the official’s accounting, two minutes 12 seconds to hit that shot, he was penalized one shot — a penalty that made his par at 17 a bogey, turned his even-par 71 into a 1-over 72, and left him 3-over for the British Open and out of the top 10 instead of in it.

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“I’m a fast player,” said Wagner, Matsuyama’s American playing partner. “I don’t like slow play, either. But given his position in the tournament, and given the shot he faced on 17 — laying it up out of the fescue over gorse and pot bunkers — I don’t think he took too long. . . . I think it’s tragic, and I think the R&A should use better judgment in penalizing it.”

Matsuyama told Japanese reporters that he did not understand that he was in danger of being penalized. There was a Japanese official walking with the group, and David Rickman, who oversees rules for the R&A, said the message was relayed to Matsuyama in Japanese.

“My understanding is . . . the rules position was made clear to the player,” Rickman said. “If there was something lost in translation, clearly that is regrettable.”

Thus, Matsuyama joins Guan Tianlang, a 14-year-old from China, as players who have been penalized for slow play at major championships this year. Guan drew his penalty at the Masters.

Improving slow play has become a focus for the U.S. Golf Association, which oversees the game in the U.S., and officials have been adamant that they will penalize players who do not keep pace. But some players Saturday said officials from the R&A — the USGA’s British counterpart — have been overly aggressive this week. Graeme McDowell said he and his playing partner, Gregory Bourdy, were put on the clock after four holes Saturday, played the fifth, then were taken off.

“There’s a difference between slow play and bad play,” McDowell said. “It’s like, ‘Make up your minds, guys.’ That’s not really slow-play regulations. That’s just — that’s too much. Give us a chance.”

Lee Westwood, who leads headed into the final round, said he and his playing partner, Tiger Woods, were told they were on the clock on 17, when they were four minutes out of position.

“I have every confidence with the timing officials that we have here,” Rickman said. “They’re very experienced. This is what they do for their job.”

Hello, old friend?

Woods’s bogey at 17 Saturday left him out of the final group with Westwood — a distinction that goes to Hunter Mahan, because he is also at 1 under and finished the third round first. The slide into the penultimate group adds another wrinkle, because Woods will play with Adam Scott, whose caddie is Steve Williams, with whom Woods won 13 of his 14 majors.

Woods and Williams split in the summer of 2011, an acrimonious breakup of one of the sport’s most successful pairings. Now, Scott — who won the Masters with Williams reading the clinching putt in a playoff in April — said he is benefitting from having the New Zealander on his bag.

“His experience is there in these events where par is a good score,” Scott said. “And his success is there in it, as well, and he prides himself on keeping his man at par or better, no matter how hard the course is.” . . .

Paul Lawrie, the 1999 Open champion from Scotland, drove home to Aberdeen — nearly three hours away — after his first two rounds left him at 8 over, certain he would miss the cut. He was walking his dog Friday evening when he received word that the cut had moved back to 8 over, and he was alive for the weekend. He drove back Friday night and shot a 1-under 70.

 
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