By Mark Lamport-Stokes
ARDMORE, Pennsylvania (Reuters) - Backed by world number one Tiger Woods, the United States Golf Association (USGA) unveiled on Wednesday a nationwide public education campaign to address the game's growing problem of slow play.
The 'While We're Young' campaign is part of a programme launched earlier this year by the USGA in partnership with golf industry leaders, allied organizations, media partners and golf course managers in a bid to resolve the pace-of-play issue.
In line with this campaign, the USGA said it would enforce stricter policies on slow play at this week's U.S. Open, the second of the year's four majors.
"Pace of play has been an issue for decades, but it's now become one of the most significant threats to the health of the game," USGA president Glen D. Nager told reporters on the eve of the U.S. Open at Merion Golf Club.
"Five hour plus rounds are common and they're incompatible with modern life. Beyond the time involved, poor pace of play saps the fun from the game, takes too much time, frustrates players, and discourages future play.
"In a recent study by the National Golf Foundation, 91 percent of serious golfers reported that they're bothered by slow play and say that it detracts from their golf experience."
According to Nager, more than 70 percent of golfers felt that pace of play had become a bigger problem in recent years and more than 50 percent admitted to walking off the golf course due to frustration over the length of rounds.
"As these numbers demonstrate, the golf community needs to act to address pace of play issues, they need to act now and they need to act more than ever," Nager said.
Borrowing the iconic 'While We're Young' line from the character played by American actor Rodney Dangerfield in the 1980 film 'Caddyshack', the campaign takes a lighthearted approach to encourage golfers to improve pace of play.
Three-time U.S. Open champion Woods, who was vocal in his frustration over slow play after he won the PGA Tour's Farmers Insurance Open in January, has fully endorsed the campaign.
"Pace of play is a big issue. Rounds of golf take too long and no one enjoys it," the 14-times major winner said in a statement.
Woods won the Farmers Insurance Open by four shots at Torrey Pines outside San Diego after completing a fog-delayed final round that was played at a painfully slow pace.
At one point eight strokes in front of the chasing pack on a breezy day, Woods dropped four shots over his last five holes as he and his playing partners had to wait on virtually every tee before they could proceed.
"We played nine holes in just over three hours, and three of them are par threes," Woods said after his victory. "I started losing my patience a little bit, and that's when I made a few mistakes."
Nager said the pace-of-play policy had been changed for this week's U.S. Open with every golfer in a group required to have a ball in play off the tee on a par-four or par-five hole before the group ahead had left the green.
In previous years, only one player in a group had to put a ball in play.
"This year every player in the group has to have a ball in play before that group in front of them is off the green or they will be considered out of position," Nager said.
"Then we'll start going through the process where we'll have a rover timing them and either getting them back in position or they will be subject to a warning and then penalty."
The 113th U.S. Open starts on Thursday.
(Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes; Editing by Julian Linden)