Saturday 17 March 2018

Dermot Gilleece: Some golf rules were made to be amended

Seve Ballesteros, seen above at The Open in Hoylake, had many run-ins over the rules of golf. Photo: Peter Byrne/PA
Seve Ballesteros, seen above at The Open in Hoylake, had many run-ins over the rules of golf. Photo: Peter Byrne/PA

Dermot Gilleece

Golf's remarkable system of self-regulation is promising us a bright new phase befitting the 21st century. Indeed the game's legislators claim to be currently completing one of their most significant revisions since the Royal and Ancient formed their Rules of Golf Committee back in 1897.

We're looking at a change permitting the repairing of spike-marks; a reduction from five to three minutes in the permitted search time for a lost ball; a new procedure allowing a ball to be dropped from any height, and the elimination of club-lengths for taking relief. And there's more.

The R and A and their rules partners, the US Golf Association, have been working on the changes for the last five years. The sceptics among us will be wondering if the fruits of their labours manage to soften the notorious view of Chi Chi Rodriquez, who famously growled: "I think most of the rules of golf stink. They were written by guys who can't even break 100."

The truth is that rules, by their very nature, seem to do strange things to people. In golf's extremes, they can create zealots or cheats, with the majority fitting somewhere in between.

A notable occupier of the middle ground was the great Bobby Jones, who was projected as the epitome of good sportsmanship for such declarations as, "You might as well praise a man for not robbing a bank", when asked what he thought of a golfer who called a penalty on himself.

Yet on retiring after the Grand Slam in 1930, the sizeable $600,000 which Jones is reputed to have earned from 12 one-reel instructional films for Warner Brothers didn't seem to bother him. His rationale was: "The rules of the game, whatever they were, I have always respected - sometimes even beyond the letter. But since I am no longer a competitor, I feel able to act entirely outside the amateur rule, as my judgement and conscience may decide."

Still, legislators can do only what they believe to be correct, often in the face of decidedly devious practitioners. A favourite memory in this context is of the Volvo Masters at Valderrama in 1994, when the European Tour's chief referee, John Paramor, engaged in a lengthy battle of wills with Seve Ballesteros.

With a TV camera capturing every gesture, the wily Spaniard sought relief from behind a tree to the right of the 18th fairway, claiming his ball was in a hole created by a burrowing animal. Paramor stood firm, however, and was later proved to be correct when it transpired that the depression had been created by a member's dog.

Through years of experience, Paramor has formed a fascinating view of tournament golfers. "When a professional calls for a referee's decision on the course," he said, "he is really asking, 'How do I get my ball from this terrible place to this nice place over here, without adding any strokes to my score?'"

Advocating the sort of cool, calm approach he displayed during the Ballesteros incident, he advises fellow referees to, "carefully establish all the facts about the incident and, if necessary, use the testimony of witnesses. Be prepared to show the player the rule and explain very clearly how he should proceed".

All of which would explain why the R and A saw fit to have David Rickman, their executive director of rules, address European Tour players at a meeting during the recent Abu Dhabi Championship, with regard to the upcoming rule changes.

This preceded more forthcoming disclosures from USGA executive director, Mike Davis, in a media briefing after their annual meeting in Washington last weekend.

It is a huge responsibility. While the USGA legislate on such matters for golfers in the US and Mexico, the R and A represent more than 100 golfing bodies worldwide. And unanimity was established in 1952 during an historic conference involving representatives from the golfing authorities of Britain, Australia, Canada and the US, held in a committee room of the House of Lords in London.

One of the key administrators in furthering the objectives of that meeting was John Glover, a former Irish international who became rules secretary of the R and A. In fact, he wrote a fine centenary book, Golf: A Celebration of 100 Years of the Rules of Play, in 1997.

It included a rather perplexing situation for a rules official, denying a player relief from casual water. Anxious that he should be seen to be fair, the official called for a second opinion from a so-called rover, who swept up in a buggy. Sharp and businesslike, the rover enquired: "What's the problem and where's the ball?" To which the rules official replied: "The problem is now a little more serious, because the ball is under your front wheel."

Glover was especially helpful to me when I was writing Harry Bradshaw's biography in 1987 and needed clarification on the famous ball-in-a-broken-bottle incident during the 1949 Open Championship at Royal St George's, where The Brad eventually lost a play-off to Bobby Locke. Much fiction was written about the matter, suggesting essentially that Bradshaw could have had relief had he handled the matter properly.

My research established otherwise. It became such a cause célèbre that the R and A rules secretary later prepared a special paper on the incident. Unfortunately, I received his findings too late for inclusion in the book.

This is what he sent me: "The problem [for Bradshaw] was what to do. If he declared it unplayable he could (under the Rules at the time) go back to the tee (penalty, loss of distance only), or drop a ball not more than two club-lengths from where the ball lies but not nearer the hole (penalty, one stroke). But was the ball unplayable? This was understood as being 'if the player considers he cannot make a stroke at it and dislodge it into a playable position'. It was not until later that the player became the sole judge as to whether his ball is playable or unplayable.

"Bradshaw, a delightfully quick player, decided to play the ball, perhaps because he believed in the basic principle that a 'ball should be played where it lies', or maybe he was afraid of being disqualified.

"The Rules at that time were not clear on the distinction between movable and immovable obstructions and even officials were not certain of precisely what could be done. Today, of course, the Rules are clear and Bradshaw would have been in no doubt as to the procedure and the free relief available."

Meanwhile, nothing has been considered "sacred" in the current rules revision, according to the USGA's John Bodenhamer. "Every aspect of the rules, from the content to how they're delivered, to how they're written, to what they look like in writing, is all going to be different," he said. It is also anticipated that to assist enlightenment, the use of photographs and other imagery, including videos, will be explored.

As Davis put it: "How come we can't have an instance where someone can [take their mobile phone and] say, 'Sir, I hit my ball into a water hazard. What are my options?'" Which would be truly a giant leap, given the USGA's handling of the Dustin Johnson ball-moving incident during last year's US Open.

The proposed changes are expected to be released by both bodies next month, followed by a six-month period of feed-back. Legislators will then finalise the changes, probably early next year, aimed at having them effective on January 1, 2019.

Mind you, at the risk of being mean-spirited, I can't help wondering about the seven years it's taking to complete this particular process while great golf courses are rendered progressively antiquated by 350-yard drives from ball technology that should have been curtailed.

Could the rules review, extensive though it may prove to be, turn out to be so much window-dressing? Very possibly, especially if set against the most profound assault on the game's playing facilities over the last two decades.

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