Rules of Engagement

Rules of Engagement

Well, hi-de-ho and fiddle-de-dee, here we go again. Another controversy about equipment and who gets to make the Rules. Now I’m reading that some people believe there should be two sets of Rules, one for amateurs and one for professionals.

Here’s news that’s actually not just in: That’s the way it’s been for years. Every organization of tour professionals in the world has its own set of local rules, or modifications, which are designed to allow for the fact that these people have to make a living by playing golf.

Some of them, such as Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus, are people I would consider to be experts in their field… you know, at the cutting edge, maybe? They both know that the game has changed since their glory days and that it’s now possible, with all this modern equipment, to hit shots they never would have dreamed of hitting.

So, a person might ask, why is it that those who like to dress up and play, “Let’s Make the Rules,” routinely seem to find worthless the opinions of men such as these? (That was majestically pompous, I feel.)

Jack suggested a few years ago that the ball should be slowed down, but the experts disagreed, right around the same time they figured out that the square groove lawsuit wasn’t such a brilliant idea after all. The fact that Tour players were reluctant to use square grooves should have been a dead giveaway, but there were a bunch of attorneys who would have felt left out if anyone had noticed that.

If anyone who mattered had taken Jack’s advice, and the ball wasn’t going so far today, a lot of the money currently being wasted on legal fees could be used for teaching underprivileged kids how to smoke a driver down the middle instead of a crack pipe down the alley, and the trampoline effect would still be a twisted ankle.

Instead, we have a fight between one organization with too much money and another with not enough sense. If we’re not careful here, this is going to turn into boxing. If this were a heavyweight bout (and it would appear that it is), as usual, the enemy appears to be in the process of purchasing the advertising space on the soles of the USGA’s feet.

The game is changing, just as it always has, but the strange thing is, nothing much is new. Metalwoods were invented more than a century ago, even ones with bouncy faces. I recall the XL adjustable spring-face driver by George F. Wilford, the introduction of which inspired a writer in the December 1895 issue of Golf to predict that it was only a matter of time before some idiot showed up with a dynamite cartridge in the face of his driver.

None of this nonsense would be necessary if all who played the game followed Uncle Dickie’s philosophy. Because the original Rules of Golf required that the ball be played from where it lay, golf club manufacturers were forced to come up with a club to fit every occasion. Uncle Dickie has the finest collection of these clubs in the world, and boy, the game must have been fun when they were used. Wouldn’t you like to see Tiger playing out of a couple of inches of casual water with an iron designed specifically for the task? Or how about the sight of the elegant Steve Elkington clipping one delicately off the top of a cow turd with one of Hamish McShug’s patented splatterguard niblicks?

Hey, golf could have died out a long time ago like other sports that didn’t catch on, such as catching the javelin and heading the shot. Change is good. Without it, we’d probably still be wearing three-piece Harris Tweed or appalling tartans, and trying to whack a badger’s testicle stuffed with gannet feathers out of sandy hollows that were formed by rutting sheep. Although now that I come to think of it, that does sound rather intriguing, in a Deion Sanders-meets-Old Tom Morris sort of way. But I digress.

The point is, very few people throw the discus these days, and it’s probably because there are plenty of Frisbees around. That’s progress for you, and the reality of our situation is that about 95 percent of the people who play golf pay absolutely no attention to the Rules anyway, which is fine as long as they are having fun.

Obviously, maintaining the integrity of this game at the serious amateur level is important. I have no problem with that, but in the words of the apparently immortal Keith Richards, “There’s a difference between scratching your backside and tearing yourself a new one.” Thankfully, there just aren’t that many serious amateurs around. I mean, I don’t know about you, but I think serious professionals are bad enough.

Even though I’m a pro, and always will be, I play in the real golf world now, where the game seems to be more fun than it used to be. Most of the people I play with are just like me (except they totally suck at golf). I’m talking about cold beers and mustard stains. Fat guys in bad shorts who will deliberately store intestinal gas for the express purpose of freaking out serious amateurs at the top of their backswings. Strategic intercontinental ballistic belchers that couldn’t get down to single digits if they cut off a thumb and eight fingers. My people! I love these guys, for whom trash-talking is a sign of affection, and playing a game is still about acting like a child.

The bottom line is this: The current governing bodies have no chance of winning a fight against anyone who makes anything that has even an outside chance of making this game more fun to play. Anyone who takes golf too seriously should turn pro and they’ll find out soon enough that the Rules are different.

This is not about giving the USGA or the R&A a hard time. They make the Rules for the amateur game, run their championships, and do an outstanding job of it. If, however, we have equipment that needs to be tested, it should be tested by people who, in the heat of battle, know what it is capable of doing. This is why the U.S. Air Force relies on the opinions of everyone between, say, a 24-year-old with lightning reactions, like Tiger Woods, and a 70-ish legend who has seen it all, like Arnold Palmer. Or Chuck Yeager.

Lives may not depend on golf’s Rules of engagement, but livelihoods sometimes do. It’s time for the pro Tours to get together, and at least end this nonsense for those who feed a family by trying to get a small piece of plastic into a hole in the ground by beating it with a stick. Ultimately, golf will always be its own watchdog and this is like listening to an argument between two fleas, both of whom think they own the damn thing. It’s just a dog. It will scratch wherever it itches, and I think it’s probably too late to do anything about this one’s balls. Anyway, we need it to breed.

If you arm even a low handicap golfer with a weapon that promises an extra 10 yards, he will spend most of his time 10 yards deeper in the woods. The point is, he won’t care. But off one of his rare straight ones, he might hit the par-five sixth with a 4-iron, and that is something he will care about. It will widen his eyes, make his tale taller, and make him feel so good that he might want to share the feeling with his kids.

I vividly remember the feeling I had the first time I got a ball in the air with a wooden club. It was a cut-down, brown-shafted, shiny, leather-gripped, old sheep-beater of a 2-wood, with the whipping unraveled halfway up the shaft, and the ball was yellowing and spewing elastic. I was 34 years old and playing in the German Open.

Okay, I was 9, and I had snuck onto the practice ground at dusk. I remember feeling the sweetness and then seeing the ball briefly, a little black dot, silhouetted against a sky all streaked with silver and pink, hanging over black chimneys and rooftops. And then it was gone. The hair stood up on the back of my neck, and the goose bumps flooded me so fast, I shuddered. That was almost 35 years ago, and I’ve been fascinated ever since.

This is still an impossibly difficult game, and anything that makes it more enjoyable or easier to pick up is just fine by me.

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