Yates’ Legacy: Improving the Golfer Experience August 2, 2018 By Edward Moran, USGA

Bill Yates' work continues to have a huge impact on pace of play throughout the game, most notably at Pebble Beach. (Olivia Yates)

There were three constants in Bill Yates’ life: family, golf and stopwatches. The founder of Pace Manager Systems, Yates could often be found on the golf course, observing the movement of players with enough timepieces to confound an octopus.

Yates made a science of the flow of golfers around the course and crusaded for the improvement of pace and golfer experience at facilities around the country. Although he consulted with hundreds of courses, he is best known for his work at world-renowned Pebble Beach (Calif.) Golf Links, site of the 2018 U.S. Amateur and 2019 U.S. Open championships.

The resort’s management team – as well as the golfers playing their bucket-list rounds on the famed layout – benefited greatly from the knowledge imparted by Yates, who died in June at the age of 73.

“Pebble always had a special place in Bill’s heart,” said his wife, Olivia. “He felt like it was his home course.”

From his house just minutes from Stillwater Cove, Yates traveled around the world to help facility managers better understand pace of play on their courses, including the “Home of Golf,” St. Andrews in Scotland. Through his work, Yates also helped to reduce the onus of poor pace from golfers’ shoulders, changing the conversation in a way that impacted the USGA and its work to advance the game.

“Bill helped us fundamentally redefine the causes of poor pace of play,” said Rand Jerris, the USGA’s senior managing director of Public Services. “That very fact places him among a very small, skilled group of people who have had this type of influence on the game.”

Yates had a long relationship with the USGA. He became interested in applying his expertise as a process and efficiency consultant after the introduction of the Pace Rating System in 1993. After meeting with Dean Knuth, who was the head of the USGA Handicap System at the time, Yates formed his company. His first task was to do what he had always done as an industrial engineer: Observe what was really happening on the course.

“[Bill] had adopted my Pace Rating formula and was able to use that to get a better predictor of the time that it should be taking to play a golf hole,” Knuth recalled.

At the time, the prevailing thought was that pace of play was the sole responsibility of the players. For decades, countless articles and campaigns implored golfers to pick up the pace.

The readings from his stopwatches told Yates that one of the biggest causes of poor pace was tee-time intervals. At the time, intervals of six to eight minutes were common, which were too short to provide a smooth flow of golfers around the course.

Facilities utilize shorter intervals to get more golfers onto the course in the hopes of increasing revenue. But this inevitably causes bottlenecks and a gradual increase in waits and round times as more and more groups enter the course – resulting in increased customer complaints and reduced satisfaction.

For more than 20 years, Yates advised facility managers on the financial benefits of providing a consistent experience throughout the day, guided by his analysis of the five factors that he believed most influenced pace of play: management practices and policies, player behavior, player ability, course maintenance and setup, and course design.  

“What drove Bill forward,” said Olivia Yates, “was the absolute conviction that every course has the ability and obligation to deliver a good experience so that every golfer, every day can enjoy a smooth, flowing round, making every tee time equally valuable.”

Yates’ populist bent certainly would have met with the approval of his boyhood idol, Arnold Palmer. As an 11-year-old in Pittsburgh, Yates was inspired to take up golf by the young pro he watched winning tournaments on television.

“He was absolutely stunned that everything he had seen in black and white on TV was in color, with emerald greens and fairways,” said Olivia.

Watching fellow Western Pennsylvania native Arnold Palmer on television inspired a young Bill Yates to take up the game. (Olivia Yates)

After meeting as students at Carnegie Mellon University, Bill and Olivia married in 1969 before he enlisted in the Navy. Through raising their family of four children and postings in areas such as golf-unfriendly Newfoundland, Yates sustained his love for the game.

“He played every chance he could get, which wasn’t very often,” said Olivia. “He always put family first. In some ways, that was part of his motivation, since he recognized that golf is a time-consuming sport and that people’s time is valuable. He wanted their experience on the course to be as enjoyable as possible.”

Following his stint in the Navy, the family settled in Pittsburgh, where Bill earned a master’s degree from the University of Pittsburgh before becoming a process engineer for H.B. Maynard, helping to make companies’ operations more efficient. Yates later moved to the Los Angeles area, then to Pebble Beach, setting up a felicitous meeting of bottleneck and stopwatch.

R.J. Harper, who was known as “Mr. Pebble Beach,” had started working at Pebble Beach Golf Links as a marshal before becoming director of golf, then executive vice president of the Pebble Beach Company. A round at Pebble Beach is one of the most coveted experiences in golf, and Harper, who died in November 2017 after 32 years at the resort, recognized the need to make this experience as memorable and enjoyable as possible for all guests.

“That’s when we brought in Bill, who’s really one-of-a-kind,” said Harper in 2013. “The only guy in the industry that we knew was doing something about [pace of play], learning about it, studying it and making it a focus.”

For the Pebble Beach community, Yates’ impact extended well beyond round times and revenue. He will be remembered not just for improving their operations – but also for the way he did it.

“What I learned most from Bill was that he truly cared,” said Shawn Smith, Pebble Beach Company’s director of golf. “I could call him 24/7, literally. He gave me his cell phone number and said, ‘Whenever you need me, I’m there.’ I’ll never forget that.”

Yates had that effect on everyone he met.

“I’ve gotten such an outpouring,” said Olivia. “I have been absolutely overwhelmed by what people have said – that he was gentle, charming, compassionate, caring, a lover of people.

“One of his most profound qualities was his love of people: the caddies, marshals, maintenance workers, waiters, service people. He just loved interacting with them.”

Throughout his career, Yates (pictured here with his granddaughter) always put family front and center. (Olivia Yates)

In addition to helping everyday play at Pebble Beach, Yates made a lasting contribution to the operation of the U.S. Open.

The 2012 U.S. Open and U.S. Women’s Open were low points for pace of play in the championships. The average round during the first two days of the U.S. Open at The Olympic Club took well over five hours, and the longest round took five hours, 46 minutes. The U.S. Women’s Open at Blackwolf Run was worse, with an average round time of five hours, 45 minutes, and a longest round of six hours, 14 minutes.

“We had a lot of concerns about pace of play and flow around Merion for the 2013 U.S. Open,” said Jerris. “The property is so tight and pathways were so constricted that there were some significant concerns.”

Yates proposed lengthening the starting intervals and recalculated the allotted times.  

“It was all done scientifically, and it was really amazing,” said John Bodenhamer, the USGA’s senior managing director, Championships
& Governance. “We knocked it out of the park. We predicted exactly where there would be waits on even long par 3s, and we had player call-ups administered. It really helped the pace of play.”

The impact was even greater for the U.S. Women’s Open at Sebonack Golf Club, where the average round time came down by nearly 40 minutes.

“Bill really opened my eyes to the role that the committee plays in contributing to the problem,” said Jeff Hall, the USGA’s managing director for Rules and Competitions. “He helped us identify areas where we can take proper steps in managing pace of play. It’s opened my eyes into how we could do things better and I believe that I’m a better administrator as a result.”

From national championships to mom-and-pop courses, everyone in golf could benefit from Yates’ work. And they still can, because Pace Managers Systems will continue through the leadership team made up of his family members.

Yates’ ideas have found another home in Tagmarshal, a GPS technology company that allows facilities to keep track of play in real time.

“His big goal with us was to jointly create the ultimate solution for golf courses,” said Bodo Sieber, CEO of Tagmarshal. “We have made a pledge to [Olivia] and his family that we would carry that forward with what he’s already imparted on us. We firmly intend to honor that.”

Although his work in golf resided within the precise, absolute world of numbers, Yates found passion and inspiration in the game.

“Bill would want to be remembered as someone who found golf fun, challenging, romantic and magical,” said Olivia.

Edward Moran is an intern in the USGA’s Research, Science and Innovation Department.

Around the Association