John McGrath

John McGrath: In golf, there’s no gimme when it comes to the rules

jmcgrath@thenewstribune.com

Dustin Johnson wasn’t seeking any competitive advantage when he inadvertently made contact with the ball while lining up a putt during the final round of the 2016 U.S. Open — the ball moved less than a tenth of an inch — but he got slapped with a one-shot penalty anyway.
Dustin Johnson wasn’t seeking any competitive advantage when he inadvertently made contact with the ball while lining up a putt during the final round of the 2016 U.S. Open — the ball moved less than a tenth of an inch — but he got slapped with a one-shot penalty anyway. The Associated Press

Inflexible rules have been part of golf since the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers at Muirfield established 13 commandments in 1744.

Despite their clunky title, the sport’s founding fathers kept things simple. Take Rule 10: “If a Ball be stopp’d by any person, Horse, Dog or anything else, the ball so stop’d must be played where it lyes.”

Over the 273 years since horses and dogs roamed fairways, the rule book has both expanded and gotten ever more unintelligible. In a joint effort to pick up the pace of play, the USGA (which governs golf in the U.S. and Mexico) and the Royal and Ancient Golf Club (which governs golf around the rest of the world) have proposed revisions of rules that made no sense in the first place.

For instance, eliminating the one-shot penalty for a ball that moves by accident. The key word here is “accident.” Dustin Johnson wasn’t seeking any competitive advantage when he inadvertently made contact with the ball while lining up a putt during the final round of the 2016 U.S. Open — the ball moved less than a tenth of an inch — but he got slapped with a one-shot penalty anyway.

The assumption such accidents are tantamount to cheating is ridiculous, and relaxing the harsh penalty was a no-brainer. Then again, we’re talking about golf. It took the USGA and Royal and Ancient Golf Club five years to conclude that an innocent mishap should be regarded as an innocent mishap, and it will take until Jan. 1, 2019, before any liberalized rules go into effect, if they go into effect.

The golf organizations will monitor public feedback for six months. If millions of muni-course duffers reveal themselves to be aghast at the premise of avoiding a penalty for making accidental contact with the ball, it’s back to the drawing board.

But, hey, progress still is progress. Per the status quo, a one-shot penalty is assessed if a player’s club touches the ground before striking the ball out of a bunker. That’s another rule facing extinction in 2019.

Five minutes to search for a lost ball? Seriously? In 2019, the time limit could be reduced to three minutes, which still is too long. (I’m a heretic about this. Hit the ball, see the ball. If you hit the ball somewhere you can’t see the ball, suck it up.)

Not all of the proposed revisions will thrill pro golfers. Instead of relying on caddies to line up their shots, they’ll have to use their own knowledge and instincts. A reasonable challenge, no?

The five-year project of removing some of the lard from a fat rule book — from 34 laws to 24 laws — is evidence of golf’s ability to move out of the dark ages. But there’s more moving to do.

Upon learning of the proposed rule revisions this week, I thought of Roberto De Vicenzo, the Argentinian who qualified for an 18-hole playoff with Bob Goalby in the 1968 Masters.

A 65 on Sunday found De Vicenzo finishing at 11 under par. But his playing partner, Tommy Aaron, marked a 4 instead of a birdie 3 on the 17th hole, and De Vicenzo didn’t study his scorecard before signing it.

Aaron’s gaffe cost De Vincenzo a one-shot penalty that turned his final-round score from 65 to 66. There was no playoff. Goalby won, fairly and squarely and weirdly, beneficiary of the kind of clerical error that never would at occur at, ahem, the Oscars.

“I play golf all over the world for 30 years,” De Vicenzo lamented afterward, “and now all I can think of is what a stupid I am.”

At least De Vicenzo was allowed to keep his second-place prize money of $15,000. Had he signed an errant scorecard in his favor, disqualification awaited.

Requiring its competitors to devote scrupulous attention to every last detail is what makes golf unique. It’s a charming aspect of the sport, I guess, but denying a man the opportunity to win the Masters because he signed an incorrect scorecard fulfills any definition of primitive.

Primitive can’t be solved overnight. After all, it took golf’s ruling organizations five years to decide that making accidental contact with the ball — moving it a micro-inch — is not a deal breaker.

One step at a time.

John McGrath: @TNTMcGrath

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