Monday, April 15, 2013

The First Rule of Golf (Rule 1 -- 19/3.1416) Is -- Stop $%&@ing Talking About the Rules of Golf!

I'm so naive. I actually thought Adam Scott's thrilling playoff win in the Masters would give us blessed relief from still more rechewing of the two-stroke penalty Tiger Woods got for violating some part of Rule 26-1 in the tournament's second round.

My silly mistake. Nothing is a more suitable topic for debate in the sports world of 2013 than an issue where nobody shooting their mouth off has the faintest knowledge of the subject. The rules of golf are perfect in that regard.

That's the whole point of this story, isn't it? The sport of golf makes its competitors their own referees. Golfers are responsible for calling penalties on themselves, all in the name of sportsmanship and integrity. Which is fine, praiseworthy even, or would be if at the same time golf has not created a set of rules so convoluted that nobody is really sure what they are, even the people who wrote them?

Woods didn't know the rule governing his drop after hitting a ball into the pond on 15. The Rules Committee of Augusta National didn't know whether Woods had broken a rule, either. In fact, at first it decided he didn't. If the people at the very pinnacle of the sport are confused about the rules, how am I, or more to the point, radio and TV commentators supposed to know what's what?

As it happened, I was watching Woods on TV Friday when  he was on 15. David Feherty, a veteran and accomplished golf announcer blessed with the gift of gab, was reduced to tongue-tied incoherence attempting to describe Woods' predicament and the legal options available to him. Significantly, Feherty was one of the few golf broadcasters (and they were all at Augusta, even the ones who work for other networks) who didn't rush in to editorialize on Woods' situation last Saturday morning.

The Masters Rules Committee (incidentally, it's head, Phil Ridley, was about 30 years younger than I would've imagined) called a penalty on itself for having prematurely deciding Woods hadn't done anything wrong, and gave him a two-stoke penalty without disqualification. Considering that the penalty did not cost Woods the Masters (the par-fives did that), sane people should be prepared to the let the drop matter drop.

Sane people are thin on the ground in sports these days. Even today, the tournament now history, I saw and heard TV and radio commentators arguing that Woods should've been disqualified. It's beyond obvious this was simple pot-stirring to capitalize on the fact some folks will never forgive Woods for his unpleasant personal life, and like the idea of punished for something. What a fun way to think about sports, huh? It's a forum for venting  bitterness at one's betters.

I have one friendly word of advice to the pot-stirrers. Do you really want to get the reputation as someone with a bigger stick up your ass than members of Augusta National Golf Club, an organization the U.S. Supreme Court thinks ought to take itself less seriously?

Woods got a pass because of Rule 33 --7/4.5, the one created by the USGA to deal with the dingalings who see some pro violate a rule on TV, then call in to get the poor SOB disqualified and cost him a few hundred grand. Those nosy parkers are not popular. It's my suspicion that the people who drop dimes on rules they see broken on TV will tee it up in sand traps if they think they can get away with it.

It's a truism in the wider world of recreational (lousy golfers) that while known cheaters are very much disliked and shunned, known rules obsessives are just about as unpopular. Stuff happens in golf where the only sensible solution to maintain a pleasant and above all, properly paced round is to break a rule. Guys and gals lose a ball and instead of going back to the tee for another drive, they drop one and take the two-shot penalty rather than losing the strokes and distance. That's a violation. But you know, there's a group on the tee waiting for your foursome to clear, and they're already mad you spent all that time searching for the lost ball.

As it happens, I played my first round of 2013 yesterday down the Cape. I made it all the way to the ninth hole before I broke a rule. There was a pond off to the left of the fairway where a gaggle of geese had apparently wintered. At any rate, my ball was in a part of the fairway covered with goose shit.

Goose shit is a loose impediment. Under the rules, I could remove it without penalty. Sure. With what? Nor was I about to dig in and take a solid stance with my new Footjoys. I carefully picked up my ball, walked back somewhat further than Woods had last Friday, and took a drop. My playing partner had no problems with this decision. I slept soundly despite my assault on the sacred integrity of the game.

For the 99 percent of golfers who'll never even enter a club championship, a good faith effort to abide by the rules is all that's needed. We're out there to enjoy ourselves, not to earn a spot in golf's overwritten history.

For the pros, it's my belief it's time to give them a break and officiate the damn sport like all the other sports. Make the rules officials umpires who either call violations or blow calls. And there should be rhubarbs, too!

The 2013 Masters was superior sports entertainment. Think how much better it would've been if we had the memory of a furious Tiger Woods, his Nike cap reversed for effect, up in the grille of some greenjacketed official a la Earl Weaver, shouting (of course) "You cannot be serious!!"


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