Monday, October 04, 2004



Thanks to my brother, I have taken up golf in the last few years. Well, actually, "taken up" is probably overstating things; but at any rate I've learned how to enjoy flogging the pill over hill and dale, often with interesting side trips into the woods and the tall grass.

Golf is unusual in that it is scored on the honor system. Each person ultimately attests to his or her own score, even when playing in a group. What this means, of course, is that golfers are damned liars.

Oh, don’t get me wrong, I’m not talking about you. You play fair and score yourself accurately. Naturally. So do I. But you and I both know that most other golfers are blatant scoundrels when it comes to scoring.

Take one occasional golfer I’ll call Taylor, a neighbor of mine when I lived in Illinois. On his home course, there are areas that are called “restored native prairie.” These are areas that the golf course owners are returning to a native state, so as to make the course more environmentally friendly and so they don’t have to mow there. Taylor regularly hits into these areas, which are out of bounds. But prairie being prairie—in places, nearly as bald as the fairway, only a different shade of brown—there are times when the ball sits right up and mocks Taylor.

One time, he crossed the barrier, a low plastic tape stretched between stakes, but, instead of picking up his ball to drop it in-bounds, he addressed it.

“Hey, Taylor, what are you doing? That’s out of bounds.”

“Oh, screw that. I’m not going to ruin a good drive by taking an extra stroke for a drop. I can hit just fine from here.”

Which he tried to do, with the long iron that theoretically would have gotten the ball to the vicinity of the next green. Except, unfortunately, he mis-hit the ball. It traveled a few yards and came to a stop, still in the scrub.

So he hit it again. Same result.


Finally, with steady, grim, silent determination, Taylor gave up on the long iron, grabbed his sand wedge, and took a vicious full swing at the hapless ball, which was still sitting innocently out of bounds staring up at him from what looked like a good lie. The ball and a large hunk of formerly virgin prairie grassland both flew through the air. The hunk of grass landed with a thump on the fairway, and the ball dribbled a few yards farther on.

Cut to the end of the hole, when the foursome have finished putting out and are replacing the flag and clearing the green for the next group. Bob, who is scoring, asks everyone for their score.

“Seven for me,” says Tom.

“Six,” says Rick.

“Six,” chirps Taylor, a little too perkily.

Six? Taylor, you took five strokes just on that little detour of yours!”

“You expect me to score that?” says Taylor. “That was out of bounds. I’m scoring myself one for a drop.”

There are also those tremendously inconvenient USGA rules to contend with. As every weekend golfer knows, hitting into a forward hazard from the teeing ground should logically be scored by requiring a drop on the far side of the hazard at the cost of one stroke. Many golfers go ahead and play as if this were in fact the rule; it makes sense, because you’re penalized for flubbing your tee shot but are mercifully relieved of having to face the hazard again. Having to tee off again, lying two, seems too Draconian a punishment. It just seems to lack...justice.

This seems especially true in the case of the popular island green. The average hundredsomething golfer, facing an island green, even though it may be no more than a hundred yards away, will tense up all over his body, and in his soul. He will take a rigid backswing bringing into play muscles he doesn’t even know he has, and the ball will plonk into the water.

Technically, he is lying two in the tee box.

“Mulligan,” he growls, teeing up again.

But does he lay up this time?

There are not all that many natural islands on golf courses. Mostly, island greens sit there in the middle of a hectare of flatland surrounded by a ring of water that looks like a moat. It looks that way because it was carved by a bulldozer. In front of it, beside it, sometimes even beyond it, there is nice, flat, inviting, playable fairway. But does our hero lay up, in order to cheat the water, and sensibly circumvent his doom?

He does not. Of course he does not, because then he would be lying two by the time he got to the green (four by USGA rules), which would not do.

He takes his “Mully.” Plop! It finds water too.

Now he’s lying four on the tee box. On a par three.

Is that fair? Well, not to the average golfer, no, it doesn’t seem so. The sensible, logical thing at this point would seem to be to drop on the green-side of the moat and announce that he’s lying two. It seems sufficient penalty; with a rare one-putt he can do no better than par, and he will score a bogey most likely and a double in case of a three-putt, which in his state of mind by that time is a fair possibility. But the point is that there is such a thing, in the golfer’s mind, as bad being bad enough.

So, for the most part, USGA rules be damned. Golfers compromise. They compromise between their real score and a score that seems reasonable, that feels deserved.

This is cheating, of course. But only technically.

© 2004 by Michael C. Johnston
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