We play the ball where it lies.
We’re dealing with several issues concerning this year’s Masters but let me pick off two. One is the seeming arbitrary and capricious rules of golf and why they are worthy of respect. The second deals with the importance of honor in the context of golf; indeed, how it is the single most important aspect of the entire game.
Let’s take the rules first.
Item: 14-year-old golfer assessed penalty for slow play; a nation mourns.
There was a nice story when 14-year-old Chinese golfer Guan Tianlang played well and made the cut. But twitter blew up when he was assessed a penalty for slow play on Friday. National media types and basic twitter buddies were falling over themselves to express their own dryly ironic views on slow play in golf.
It turns out Guan’s group was out of position on 10, timed on 11, warned on 12, and then docked the stroke on 17.
Even yesterday there was this:
On the 14th hole, for example, he tossed some grass in the air twice to test the wind, grabbed a club and took a few practice swings before changing his mind. He grabbed another club and took a couple more practice swings before finally hitting his shot. Afterward, a rules official told him he was 6 minutes over on that hole alone, and he needed to speed it up.
I’ve yet to see any twitter retractions and nor do I. But the episode is instructive on the knee-jerk expressions of outrage at the easy target that is Augusta National or the Rules of Golf in general.
Item: 17-time major championship winner does not understand the drop rules for water hazard.
Here’s the Tiger Woods kerfuffle really quickly in case you missed it. Tiger has an 80 yard approach shot over water to the 15th on Friday. The shot came in hot, hit high off the flagstick, and caromed into the water hazard. Tiger surveys the drop area, walks back to his spot, adds to two yards to his spot (so even Tiger knew the first shot was going long), and hits his shot.
[Observation: I think his first shot was very likely to fly the green and had enough juice to reach the pond BEHIND fifteen. It was not, repeat, WAS NOT, the perfect shot that has been widely reported.]
This is a penalty. It matters not whether he intended to commit a penalty.
The Augusta Rules Committee convenes and gives him a pass. I find it hard to believe that the inevitable public outfall for docking Tiger two shots at the end of the round didn’t enter into their calculus and they just said, ‘It’s not worth it. Give him a pass.’
Lo and behold Tiger told the world that he deliberately did not drop where he was supposed to and at that point, Augusta had to dock him the shots. A new rule allowed Augusta to do this without DQ-ing him for signing the wrong scorecard.
Again, twitter blows up. Who dimed out Tiger? What a stupid rule? And less prominent but still given voice: Augusta hates blacks and women. I mean, really. Just. Really.
Why have rules?
That seems to be the question out there. Why shouldn’t the kid be allowed to play slowly.. look at him, he’s so cute? Why should Tiger be penalized, it was an honest mistake?
It reminds me of the Casey Martin problem a few years ago. Anyone who didn’t play golf thought he should be allowed to ride a cart. These people never faced a 17th hole, 215 yard par 3 after walking a hilly course. You get tired; riding in a cart would be an advantage and a large one. But these folks were more than happy to tell golf how it should conduct their game. They were not equipped with any qualifications to make this judgement, but that didn’t stop them.
So let’s explain something about golf to people who don’t know golf.
The rules of golf were first established in 1745. They have been maintained by the Royal and Ancient since then. Why? Because someone has to set the rules. Why so strict? Because golf is a game of strict. Why can’t the drivers be bigger? Alright that’s enough.. go play tennis, ok?
I mean… stop. You don’t like the rules? Unfair? Makes you mad? I hear you. When I was fifteen, my buddies and me used to play our matches with three mulligans: front, back, and floater. Why can’t they allow that at the St. Andrews?
Then I turned sixteen.
These are the same rules Old Tom Morris and Harry Vardon and Bobby Jones played by. What an absurd and self-centered idea that the rules should be modified to accommodate me or even my generation. They were good enough for guys hitting gutta percha balls with hickory shafted niblicks. I should think I, today’s golfer, will be able to abide by the same rules they did.
Arbitrary rules are arbitrary.
Rules are the rules. They ARE arbitrary and with purpose. That purpose is so that there is no grey area and so that everyone has an equal footing that is not subject to judgement calls. If you’re in a match play tournament, your opponent is right next to you and so there is more leeway in adjudication. But in stroke play, you’re playing against the field and so the rules have to be uniform across the board.
For example: you can’t ground your club in a hazard. I believe I’ve witnessed four or five instances where someone tripped in a sand trap or inside the red stakes and used his wedge to catch himself — PENALTY. And also, in EVERY case, the golfer called it on himself.
Bobby Jones called a penalty on himself when the ball moved at address in the 1925 US Open. No one saw it, only he did. He deflected praise for action saying, “You might as well praise a man for not robbing a bank.”
We’ve seen players call penalties on themselves for nicking off a twig on a practice swing. We saw Craig Stadler improve his lie by putting a towel under his knees for a tough shot. Roberto De Vincenzo signed a scorecard that incorrectly gave him an additional stroke and kept him out of the 68 Masters playoff. There are countless incidents where the strict rules of golf are enforced.
Are these ridiculous rules?
Really not the point.
They are the rules. The governing body of golf, the Royal and Ancient, have maintained the rules of golf since 1745.
You don’t like em, go play tennis. I mean… damn. “Play the ball where it lies.” It’s been this way for almost 300 years. What is there not to understand here?
The missing component to the rules debate: honor.
Quick anecdote: My old club (Vesper CC, Lowell) participates in an annual ‘Cities Tourney’ against other clubs in town. Members hold a qualifying tourney; field of 50, top 10 make the Cities team. It’s a big deal.
There was a guy who bogeyed the first hole, and went ahead and teed off from 2 before the rest of the group cleared the 1st green. (breach of protocol there, to be sure.) he hit the tee shot that no one saw from the whites, not the blues. he called the two shot penalty on himself and missed the team by a shot.
The moral of the story: No one remembers who was on that year’s Cities team. Twenty years later, everyone remembers [redacted] as a man of the highest integrity.
Golf is a gentleman’s game.
To some, this is a quaint and archaic notion.
To the rest of us, it’s the single most important facet of the game. We all know that executing a high draw on a drive demonstrates skill. You got a knock-down 7-iron that you can hit into the wind? Awesome. But the most important trait you can bring to your game, the primary way you will be remembered by your playing partners: are you a gentleman?
Abiding by the rules of golf is just the ante, should be a given. This concept extends to how you comport yourself on the course. Have you ever played with the club-thrower? The yeller? The sulker? Did you like it? Do you remember that guy’s 20 foot birdie putt or that you never wanted to play with him again?
Golf is not about golf.
Golf is a measure of your personality. Of your maturity. Of your grace under pressure. Of your class.
This brings us to Tiger. I went back and forth with friend (and true golfer) @art_brosef Friday on this. Tiger had air-mailed the stick on 10 by maybe ten feet and he did his, ‘Oh TIGER’ self-flagellation that we’ve seen, now, for 20 years. I mean we let it go in his teens, his 20s. But cripes, he’s a 37-year-old grown man now. STOP ACTING LIKE A CHILD. It’s unpleasant to play with such a person. Such a person is demonstrating a consuming self-absorption and in so doing a disregard for his playing partners.
Tiger has had this problem brought to his attention before; Tiger has said he would fix it. He hasn’t. As he gets older, it becomes more notably childish. In fact, my immediate reaction to Tiger’s flagpole shot was that the golf gods are tending to this recurring self-moderation problem.
People who don’t play golf simply don’t understand that golfers who display such behavior on the course are known by another, more informal term: asshole.
People who don’t play golf don’t understand that it’s possible to separate appreciation of a player’s skill from a frank assessment of the person’s character. This has nothing at all to do with off-course stuff. But yet, your on-course comportment is a view into your soul. It’s important. People remember.
“We play the ball where it lies.”
Don’t think people remember? Well that Cities story above lives on at Vesper to this day, twenty years later. But for more proof let’s wrap this with Alistair Cooke’s comments about Bobby Jones in 1972.
His grace, on and off the course, made him the idol of two continents. And that to people who didn’t know a putter from a stair-rod. But his universal appeal was not as a golfer. What then? The word that comes to mind is a dying word. Gentleman. And I think that Jones embodied it. And I would say it is a combination of goodness and grace. Unwavering courtesy. Self-deprecation. Consideration for other people. And THIS allied to complete supremacy in one sport is what made him a hero in Scotland and England as much as in his native Georgia.