One of the bromides of golf is that it’s a “gentlemen’s game,” much of which is based on the premise that a golfer is essentially honest, knows the rules of the game, and is willing to call a penalty on one’s self. The most cited story in this regard involves the legendary Bobby Jones, who, upon being praised for calling a rules infraction on himself that ultimately cost him a tournament, replied, “Why? You might as well congratulate me for not having robbed a bank.”
[A quick aside – the role of Jones in his bio-pic was played by Jim Caviezel, who is primarily known for his portrayal of Jesus in “The Passion of the Christ.” I prefer to think that this was co-incidence.]
The reality is a bit murky. A golfer being honest, I mostly accept. As for the rest of it . . .
Knowing the Rules of Golf is not quite like trying to pass the MCAT exam, although it does require a bit of study and is not always intuitive (In the USGA Rules of Golf, there are 7 pages alone devoted to the proper procedures for taking relief from hazards and obstructions – please refer to Rule 20: Lifting, Dropping and Placing; Playing from Wrong Place). The manual is about 180 pages, covers the basic 34 rules, plus equipment policy, how to implement “Local Rules” – for example, if you play a course that has a preponderance of ‘gators, the course may create a local rule allowing relief from getting your foot bit off – and the official USGA policy on gambling, which is largely ignored.
Professional golfers and serious amateur tournament players follow the Rules to the letter. In the case of the pros, there are rules officials present at every tournament to assist players who aren’t quite sure how to proceed – but they only assist at the behest of a player. This has led to some rather messy situations, primarily due to the phenomena known as the Golf Rules Fanatic (“GRF”).
The GRF watches every hour of televised golf and if he sees something he doesn’t care for, he’ll actually call in to the tournament to report a violation. The most famous example of this occurred in the 80’s in the final round of a tournament in California, where Craig Stadler, not wanting to dirty his pants, placed a towel on the ground to kneel on while he poked his ball back into the fairway. A GRF called in, stating that by placing an object beneath him while swinging a club, he had “built a stance” and needed to be penalized 2 shots. Stadler did not penalize himself, and as he had already signed his scorecard, was disqualified, costing him in excess of $20,000 in the process. Stadler, of whom there’s never a doubt as to what he thinks about a particular shot or situation, took the news surprisingly well, acknowledging that ignorance of the law is no excuse.
Most of us who play on the weekend know enough to penalize ourselves for hitting it out of bounds or in a hazard, but a lot of how we decide to proceed is based on convenience . . . we don’t hole every putt, we’ll make arbitrary decisions if we’re holding up play (“Look, we can’t find your ball, so by rights you should go back to where you last play, but screw it, just drop one”), and if a course is not in the best of condition, we might decide it’s ok to “roll” the ball to get a more favorable lie. As long as everyone is on the same page, it makes for an enjoyable game on more practical terms.
What’s interesting for us, however, is when we choose to play in a tournament where it’s clearly stated that USGA rules are in effect. There are generally no rules officials on the course in these instances, which means that if a player is not sure how to proceed, he shouldn’t record his score or sign his scorecard until he’s reviewed the situation with the “Committee,” who in most cases is the head pro of the club where the tournament is being played.
Which leads us to my tale of woe. I played a tournament in Kitty Hawk, NC years ago at a club called Duck Woods. The first hole is a relatively short par 5, of which I was able to find myself about 15 yards to the left of the green in two shots. Visions of an up and down for birdie were dashed when I flubbed my pitch shot into a green side bunker. I then proceeded to:
· Leave my next shot in the bunker
· Double hit the next shot (Rule 14-4. Striking the Ball More Than Once); the ball struck the top of the bunker, bounced backwards, and hit me (Rule 19-2 – Ball in Motion Deflected or Stopped by Player, Partner, Caddie, or Equipment); landing again in the bunker
· Hit the next cleanly onto the green
· Sank the putt
I tried to mentally calculate my score but was unclear about what the double-hit and ball-striking-me penalties entailed, so I turned to my fellow competitors (both of whom had witnessed the whole sorry incident) and asked, “What did I make there?”
Almost unanimously, they answered, “Better ask the pro.”
When the round finished, I dutifully brought my scorecard to the pro, and related my story on the first hole to him. He listened patiently, looked at what I had scored on the other holes, and replied, “You made a ten there, son. That puts you only 18 shots off the lead.”
Needless to say, I did not go on to win the tournament. But like Bobby Jones, I played by the rules. Jim Caviezel won’t be playing the lead in my life story, but maybe I can get him as a partner at my next member/guest tournament.