DALLAS – Two years ago, after a poll revealed he was the slowest player on the PGA Tour, Ben Crane vowed to make changes to play faster. Count Rory Sabbatini among those who got tired of waiting.

Sabbatini’s recent attempt at frontier justice, when he went to the next hole without his playing partner, showed how desperate players have become to fight slow play.

His protest brought boos from the gallery and prompted ABC analyst Paul Azinger to proclaim that Sabbatini had “gone psycho.”

But the incident has heightened awareness of an issue that has hovered over the game since 3-woods were made of wood. Sabbatini crossed the line, but what’s a player to do?

Rule makers have moved as slowly as a foursome at Bethpage Black to hasten pace of play. Sometimes it takes radical behavior to spur change.

South African Fulton Allem once wrote “you are too slow” on Bob Estes’ scorecard.

“Etiquette is not a small city in France,” Allem explained. “We have got to play by the rules.”

The annual slow-play debate is in full swing. The European Tour, flexing its muscles with new rules, hit Simon Khan with a record fine of 8,000 pounds, or just less than $16,000. And after the Sabbatini-Crane incident attracted headlines, Vijay Singh blasted officials for not enforcing the shot clock during five-hour rounds at the Barclays Classic.

The PGA Tour has increased its fines for slow play, but the rules have more bark than bite.

When a group gets out of position defined by an open hole ahead of them, each player in that group is considered to be on the clock.

According to PGA Tour rules, players are allowed 40 seconds for each shot and get an extra 20 seconds in certain situations, like teeing off first on a par-3.

The system doesn’t weed out the snails because slow players speed up when they are being timed and then slow down when off the clock.

The slow players know who they are. It is up to them to fix the problem. But most deny the snail tag instead of meeting it head-on because the slow-play label sticks. Crane accepted full responsibility, rushing to Sabbatini’s defense.

“I can’t change the situation, but I am the one who caused the problem,” he said.

Golf’s ruling bodies are searching for answers because five-hour rounds have a greater effect at the grass-roots level. It’s hard attracting new players to a sport that requires half a day.

“Slow play is the bane of the game,” said David Fay, executive director of the U.S. Golf Association.

Weekend hackers emulate heroes they see on TV, and many of the game’s best are also the slowest. Jack Nicklaus taught a generation to read five-foot putts from every angle. Longtime No. 1 Nick Faldo was known for his meticulous style.

Tiger Woods may not seem like a slowpoke, but he leaves nothing to chance while examining putts. World top-10 players Retief Goosen and Padraig Harrington exchanged digs while competing for the European money title. Goosen called Harrington “the slowest player on tour,” and Harrington countered by saying, “He’s no boy racer himself.”

At the Ryder Cup, slowing an opponent’s pace is common gamesmanship. Anybody who has played understands the difficulty of spending extra time between shots. That’s why Sabbatini has his share of supporters.

“Rory was absolutely right in what he was feeling,” Frank Lickliter told reporters at the U.S. Open. “I like Ben. He is a great guy, but he is the slowest player on tour, and it’s not enjoyable playing with him.”

The PGA Tour could learn from the LPGA, which last year started levying two-stroke penalties after one warning, and then a disqualification for the next. Nearly 20 players have received two-shot penalties.

Expect the PGA Tour to do something similar by next season. Or maybe it will follow the advice of veteran Nick Price, a longtime advocate of administering penalty strokes for slow play. Two years ago, he wrote commissioner Tim Finchem, suggesting the tour use its new ShotLink statistical system to monitor the pace of all players.

Crane, who has been known to study contour maps on the green, says he hopes to get faster. At first, the Westlake resident worried his slow play might affect his friendship with Sabbatini, who is practically a neighbor in Southlake.

But Sabbatini didn’t keep him waiting long. About 90 minutes after the incident, he rang Crane’s cellphone to apologize.

He’s fortunate that LPGA speedster Laura Davies isn’t setting the rules on pace of play. After long waits at last year’s British Open, she offered a two-word solution for slow players:

“Shoot them.”

(c) 2005, The Dallas Morning News.

Visit The Dallas Morning News on the World Wide Web at http://www.dallasnews.com/

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-07-06-05 2134EDT

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