Wednesday 21 March 2018

No limit for ace in the hole

Dermot Gilleece

As a concept much admired by the Royal and Ancient, equity is clearly evident in the majority of golf's rule changes which will take effect from January 1.

Expediency seems to have dominated their thinking, however, with the decision to permit no-limit hole-in-one prizes for amateurs. How else can one explain the volte face from their firmly held position that it was fundamentally wrong for amateurs to exploit their golfing skill for monetary gain?

The change means they have now come into line with their ruling brethren in the USGA, who responded to an American obsession with such attractions by removing the restriction a few years ago. And as a consequence, and in the absence of any other explanation, we are now expected to accept that, suddenly, skill is no longer a factor in making a hole-in-one.

This was the argument propounded by one of the most celebrated victims of the rule, who now feels entirely vindicated. Derek Lawrenson, golf correspondent of the Daily Mail, was deprived of his amateur status for five years by the R and A after accepting a £184,000 Lamborghini Diablo sports car for a hole-in-one during an outing at Mill Ride GC in Berkshire in May 1998.

Playing off seven handicap in the company of England footballers Paul Ince and Steve McManaman, Lawrenson decided to keep the prize which he later sold for a six-figure sum. He felt he had no other option, given that he and his Mayo-born wife, Paula, had a six-week-old baby and a hefty mortgage at the time.

"I have absolutely no regrets about what I did," he said a few years later, during the course of the ban. "Quite frankly, I wasn't in a position to turn down the money which has made a huge difference to our lives."

The downside was that he was declared to be a non-amateur, so forfeiting the right to an official Council of National Golf Unions (CONGU) handicap. "It presented no problem whatsoever," added Lawrenson, who remained a member of Moor Hall GC in Sutton Coldfield. "Everything was more or less the same as normal and I continued to play about 20 friendly games a year, just as I had done previously."

In fact, the only restriction on him was that his score could not have been used in calculating the CSS of the day in a qualifying competition, but this didn't arise since he declined to play in any monthly medal "for fear of causing embarrassment." As John Walker of the English Golf Union put it: "Just because a man loses his amateur status, he doesn't forfeit the right to play golf."

But is a hole-in-one the consequence of skill, or luck? "I don't think the skill argument would stand up in court," replied Lawrenson. Why so? "Well, I've had six holes in one and Seve Ballesteros had only one. Enough said."

The elusive ace has exercised the minds of even the most modest practitioners since the game's early pioneers first applied club to ball.

And it holds a unique place in the existence of one particular American establishment. For the official opening of the Bel-Air Country Club in Los Angeles in 1926, there was a suitably large gathering around the tee at the first, a 115-yard par-three which became the present fifth in a later re-routing. And when Claude Wayne, the club secretary, stepped up to launch the first tee-shot ever hit at Bel-Air, he proceeded to have a hole-in-one.

The crowd went wild. In terms of dramatic impact, it seemed a wonderfully appropriate baptism for a course which would attract some of the biggest names from the nearby movie studios. Indeed Clark Gable had a hole-in-one at Bel-Air. So did Richard Nixon, whose acting talents found expression on a different stage.

By way of commemorating the club's opening shot, each ace at Bel-Air is celebrated in the card room or the grill room. In earlier years, drinks were on the golfer but now, with an average of 12 aces per year, every member contributes to a drinks fund and when the lucky golfer's name is posted on the bulletin board, drinks flow to a limit of $1,500.

But what of the conclusion Lawrenson draws from his own six aces compared with one from the great Seve? My response would be to wonder what could be concluded from the fact that I have never had a hole-in-one whereas Tiger Woods has had 18. And to further muddy the waters, how was it that American Art Wall, had 41 aces but Jack Nicklaus had to settle for 20 and Gary Player for 19? Joe Carr, incidentally, holds the Irish record with 15.

We could suggest that agronomy, as in the condition of greens, must also be a factor. Why then did one of the early pioneers, Sandy Herd, have 19, whereas Walter Hagen, who had the benefit of far better surfaces a generation later, have only one hole-in-one?

Proximity to the hole is obviously a critical requirement and in this respect, the professional has a clear advantage over a handicap amateur. Incidentally, Pádraig Harrington discounts greens in regulation because in his view, the leaders of such statistics tend not to attack pins. Either way, it would be fascinating to have a statistical breakdown of how close Ballesteros consistently got to the hole on par threes throughout his career. I suspect it would be a lot more impressive than Art Wall, even with his 41 aces.

So yes, luck is undoubtedly a factor, but not in the sense that a hole-in-one is a fluke, as Lawrenson would have us believe. If that were the case, we would not have statistics from the US informing us that while the odds against an average club amateur having a hole in one are 12,750/1, for a low-handicapper they are 5,000/1 and for a professional, they drop to 3,000/1. It has also been calculated that, on average, a PGA tournament professional will have a hole-in-one every 2,375 shots he hits at a par-three.

Finally, even without an ace, simply knowing about them once got me out of a rather tricky situation. It happened on the Saturday morning of the US Open at Oak Hill in 1989, when I made the two-hour journey on a Greyhound Bus from Rochester, New York, to see one of the great wonders of the world.

In the process, I inadvertently finished on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, without my passport. The upshot was that I was summarily despatched back the one-mile stretch of no-man's land to the US border post in a taxi, courtesy of the Canadian authorities.

Then came the problem of gaining re-entry into the US without a passport. After I had explained the nature of my business, a US official eventually said: "Something very special occurred at Oak Hill yesterday. What was it?"

With a sigh of relief, I replied that during a period of one hour and 50 minutes on the Friday morning, four players in separate groups -- Doug Weaver, Mark Wiebe, Jerry Pate and Nick Price -- each scored a hole in one on the 167-yard sixth, using a seven iron.

"Welcome to the United States," beamed the official, as he waved me through.

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