Few have escaped chilling grip of rules' cold reality
The nit-picking nature of golf can be infuriating for many, says Dermot Gilleece
In one of his more infamous confrontations with the media, notorious club-thrower Tommy Bolt feigned exasperation when declaring: "Only half the lies you bastards told about me are true". And last weekend's "stupid rule" reaction from Rory McIlroy suggests that little has changed over the years in the tournament professional's torment from a frequently infuriating game.
Which suggests a need at times for considerable indulgence in the media's dealing with its more colourful subjects. And in my experience, this is generally the case.
There would certainly have been sympathy from Bernard Darwin, the father-figure of modern golf writing, who was said to have had a love-hate relationship with the game for the best part of 70 years. An accomplished player who was considered good enough to appear in the inaugural Walker Cup matches in 1922, he was once famously overheard muttering to himself: "Why do I play this ******* game? I do hate it so."
Competitive golf is tough on the nervous system. There are the complex rules which can appear over-exacting, even stupid, to the unitiated or the temperamentally fragile. And there is the nature of the terrain on which the game is played, notably its quirky linksland where the ball invariably seems to bounce in the wrong direction.
Worst of all, is the grandiose notion of it being a self-regulating game of honour. Though it may have been conceived that way, the concept is often difficult to defend against the background of handicap-building and ignorance of the rules at club level, and in a professional game excessively dictated by monetary gain.
So we must be careful not to paint too rosy a picture. I remember Pádraig Harrington condemning utterly the practice of gamesmanship, especially in matchplay. As in: "My attitude is that you let your clubs do the talking."
Which is somewhat naive in the context of the game's leading exponents.
Much has been made of Jack Nicklaus's sportsmanship, especially the famous two-foot concession to Tony Jacklin which decided the tied Ryder Cup at Royal Birkdale in 1969. But for all his admirable qualities, the Bear wasn't averse to gamesmanship when the occasion demanded.
One of America's few successful black professionals, Jim Thorpe, claimed such an occasion occurred when he and Nicklaus were paired in the final round of the 1985 Milwaukee Open. Though three strokes behind Thorpe with only one hole to play, the Bear's experience told him that anything could still happen.
"How does it feel," he enquired, "to be walking down the last fairway with a three-shot lead over the greatest player to play the game." Thorpe didn't miss a step. Turning to the great man, he said: "It feels like you can't win." Nor did he.
In truth, the generally admirable behaviour of so many of golf's leading practitioners, especially Nicklaus, gives us much to be grateful for, not least their acceptance of adversity. Was there ever a better loser than the Bear? And as McIlroy discovered in Abu Dhabi, the seeming nit-picking nature of the rules would test the tolerance of a saint.
Which reflects all the more credit on players who manage to retain their dignity. I'm reminded of the Irish Open at Mount Juliet on July 1, 1993 and David Frost's extraordinary finale to the first round. Standing on the tee at the demanding, 475-yard 18th, he was four-under par for the tournament. About 20 minutes later, he was signing for a 74, having closed with an unimaginable 10.
After pulling his drive into water to the left of the 18th fairway, Frost incurred an additional two-stroke penalty for doing what McIlroy failed to do, ie take complete relief. Assuming that he couldn't play his recovery shot while standing within the margin of the hazard, he lifted the ball and re-dropped it, thereby incurring a two-stroke penalty under Rule 18 for lifting a ball in play and failing to replace it. Then came a similarly ruinous hook back into the water.
Media colleagues were moved to commend Frost's wonderful grace under pressure, as he attempted to come to terms with an error which, incidentally, was brought to the Tour's attention by fellow professional, Anders Sorensen, who watched it on television. As it happened, Frost went on to card rounds of 69, 68, 68 and claim third place with an admirable total of 279, only three strokes behind the winner, Nick Faldo, who beat Jose Maria Olazabal in a play-off for the title.
Now, to follow McIlroy's Abu Dhabi reasoning, Frost had a moral victory, given that he actually struck the ball only 275 times, if we deduct the four penalty strokes he incurred on the 18th on the opening day. But there was no mention of such possibilities at the time.
Meanwhile, Frost's ignorance of such a basic rule was viewed with some alarm by enlightened observers. But they didn't include canny golf scribes familiar with such indiscretions. Only three years later, during the World Cup at Erinvale, South Africa, Bernhard Langer and China's Lian-Wei Zhang were both penalised two strokes for rules infringements.
Langer raised quite a few eyebrows for claiming to have been unaware that he couldn't use a towel to sweep loose impediments from the line of a putt. Indeed he insisted afterwards that he had never heard of such a rule. As for Zhang: he was
penalised because his caddie rode on a golf buggy between the 14th green and 15th tee in contravention of Rule 6-4 – "For any breach of a rule by his caddie, the player incurs the applicable penalty."
Interestingly, the Chinese on that occasion were playing opposite the US, who seemed somewhat embarrassed by the whole affair. Indeed when referee John Paramor – McIlroy's man – explained the penalty after the round, Tom Lehman remained true to the professionals' code of refusing to acknowledge responsibility for their errors. Word perfect, the American asserted: "It's time they had another look at that rule."
As it happened, Langer's two-shot penalty at Erinvale made no difference to Germany's overall position. And conveniently, he had no recollection of the Dutch Open only four years previously when he was the surprised beneficiary of rules ignorance by a tournament rival.
England's Mike McLean had actually returned the best score but was later penalised two strokes for removing growing strands of vine covering his ball in rough at the 11th hole.
By improving his lie in breach of the rules, McLean handed the title to Langer, causing the German to exclaim: "This is the most unusual win of my life."
With club in hand and wild dreams to be dreamed, the cold reality of the rules can be alien terrain. Locked into our own little golfing world, we prefer to imagine how things should be. Which, after all, is one of the great fascinations of the game.