Curse of slow play leaves no time for club-throwing
Much has changed with the game of golf and much stays the same, writes Dermot Gilleece
Published 29/12/2013 | 17:00
With the golfing year slipping quietly into history, there's the wonder on this, the eve of Tiger Woods' 38th birthday, as to what the ghosts of writers past would make of the modern game. One imagines their profound shock about certain issues, not least the fact that it took 43 years for Justin Rose to succeed Tony Jacklin as an English winner of the US Open.
On a broader level, however, I suspect they would be more exercised by three key elements of the game: the way enjoyment is being remorselessly destroyed by slow play; golf's amazing development into a truly international sport; and the lost art of club-throwing.
Taking the last one first, memories remain vivid of Rory McIlroy's club-throwing during the final round of the US Open at Merion.
Nobody does outrage better than the tabloids, which were typically judgmental about McIlroy's behaviour, especially in view of a similar occurrence at Wentworth a year previously when more indulgent observers criticised him for lack of practice at the art.
Henry Longhurst would have understood. Writing back in 1965, the legendary scribe insisted that "correctness" -- the word political had yet to be added -- should not interfere in what he described as "the most exquisitely satisfying act in the world of golf."
He even offered a description of perfect club-throwing technique -- "The full backswing, the delayed wrist action, the flowing follow-through, followed by that unique whirring sound, reminiscent only of a passing flock of starlings." These sensations, he claimed, "are without parallel in sport." Longhurst went on: "Many is the time I have done it, and seen it done by better men than I. But now, alas, we should probably be drummed out of the club."
Such a sanction is, indeed, possible these days, or at least a severe reprimand, notwithstanding the fact that the urge to throw a club is an entirely natural reflex. Interestingly, these same committees can turn a blind eye to bare-faced cheating, as exercised through inflated handicaps.
As for slow play, which is strangling the game at all levels, every practitioner should be aware of Rule 6-7: "The player must play without undue delay and in accordance with any pace of play guidelines that the Committee may establish. Between completion of a hole and playing from the next teeing ground, the player must not unduly delay play."
So what's undue delay? In the best Kerry tradition, I'll answer that question with another one. If on arriving at a green, a player discovers he/she has left their putter at the tee and then returns for it, are they subject to penalty if this delays play of the following group? The answer is yes, with a two-stroke penalty in strokeplay and loss of hole in matchplay.
Depending on the circumstances, a penalty of one stroke can be applied. But when was the last time you saw such a ruling at your club? It doesn't happen because instead of reacting to slow play through proper application of Rule 6-7, club committees take the soft option of throwing their hands to the heavens and blaming tournament professionals who have, at least, the excuse of slippery greens. Mind you, example is important and one recalls Johnny Miller acidly remarking of Nick Faldo: "You have your soft-boiled eggs by the time he's ready."
Starting last June at Merion, the USGA have been making a major issue of slow play under the evocative slogan, "While we're young". They would be far better employed simply urging golfers to be less selfish.
While golf's early expansion through these islands was built around the railways, it took air travel to create its current international dimension. Yet it is only through re-reading Bernard Darwin's charming essay, 'Green Christmases', that we can begin to understand what we've lost.
In dealing with those precious games arranged between Christmas and the New Year, he describes the boyish thrill of packing his clubs before picking up other members of his group on the long train journey from London to their destination of Aberdovey in west Wales.
It was "an infinitely leisurely and dawdling train", which chugged over the Welsh border. "Sometimes we start in frost and even snow," he wrote, "and then what delight to see it disappear to find warmth and a soft, grey sky and a gentle wind as we near our haven. When we are nearly home, there is a certain hill up which the train pants more laboriously than ever. Once over the crest, we feel that we can almost snuff the salt in the air as the train rattles joyously down to the coast. It has
happened to us once to travel through a white, snow-clad land all the way from London till we reached that hill-top and then, on the other side, to find a green paradise awaiting us."
Darwin concluded: "That was truly a moment when life was worth living; a better moment perhaps, since anticipation is always better than reality. And yet the golf is wonderfully pleasant. Ours is a fine piece of natural golfing ground, even though the best has never quite been made of it, undulating and rippling in a hundred grassy hummocks and hollows and noble sandhills, crowned with spiky bents, and little dell-like crater greens that nestle among the hills."
Back in 1979, American golf instructor, Gary Wiren, made 18 predictions of what the game would be like in 2001, and was remarkably correct with 14 of them. As a follow-up, he was asked for his predictions for 2022.
Among them was the prediction that Augusta National will have a sitting US president as a member. And that she will be the first since Dwight Eisenhower. Wiren then asserted: "After demolishing all major scoring and victory records, Tiger Woods will retire from competitive golf with 22 Major titles. He'll marry in his late twenties and turn his attention to the Tiger Woods Foundation and run for public office as a congressman. And he'll win." Oops! Happy New Year.