Rumour has it that some of the keenest minds in golf, to wit the rules makers of the R&A and the USGA, are attempting to simplify the blighters. Good luck, after all these years of making them more and more complicated and adding decision upon decision upon decision as they try to cover every eventuality.
The late, great Peter Dobereiner – he used to call me Eric for reasons now lost in the mists of time and red wine – once set out to re-write the rules and gave up, I believe, because even he, with the best of intentions, found them getting longer and more complicated. Even so, the denizens of the governing bodies should read everything Dobers ever wrote about the rules (I refuse to give them a capital R) because he is scathingly funny on the subject as only the truly knowledgeable can be.
In ‘Dobereiner On Golf…and more’, edited by Robert Green and Ruth Dobereiner, Peter’s daughter, with a foreword by Seve Ballesteros, there are a few pieces on the rules. At the end of one, entitled simply ‘What is a stroke?’ there is an editors’ note: “One of Peter’s favourite pet peeves: the phrasing of the Rules of Golf. They gave him, and his readers, endless hours of amusement.” A footnote to a piece called ‘The true definitions of golf’ reads: “Another example of Peter’s pre-occupation with the absurdities of the rulebook.”
The opening paragraph sets the scene: “It has been sagely established by George Bernard Shaw, unless perchance it may have been some other witty blighter such as Oscar Wilde or Noel Coward, that the invention of private languages, as practised by all the learned professions, constitutes a conspiracy against the public. If the law was written in plain English, all lawyers would starve. Golf is guilty of the same con trick….”
There follows a glossary of common golf terms and here is a definition of what the word ‘Forwards’ means in golf (there is a long riff on this in ‘What is a stroke?’): “Backwards, as in the definition of a stroke: ‘A forward movement of the club, etc’ when it really means the first movement from the top of the backswing which is, of course, backwards.”
In the interests of fairness and research, I double-checked the current rule book (effective January 2016) and as far as I can tell forwards still means backwards. Try writing your own definition of a stroke and you’ll probably start sympathising with the rules makers.
More research was required because I couldn’t remember how many rules there were originally. My guess was 13 but detail has never been my strong point (although I do try, sometimes). Anyway, I didn’t use Google or DuckDuckGo (my current search engine of choice). I went old school and brought down a pile of books, including Charles Price’s ‘World of Golf: A panorama of six centuries of the game’s history.’ It was published in 1962, the foreword is by Bobby Jones and it’s a miracle that this blog has appeared on time because it’s not just fascinating, it’s a brilliant read and without an uncharacteristic display of iron discipline, I’d have given up writing and continued reading.
And you know what? I was right. For once. Hooray. There were 13 rules to begin with because all games need rules, to try and settle disputes and set limits. The thing about that, of course, is that people try to find ways round the rules or come up with things you never thought of, so you have to be more specific and so on and so on and so on. Then you get people who don’t necessarily break the rules, just bend them – which leads to joys like Stephen Potter on gamesmanship, another must read for rules makers and anyone who’s never heard of him. Genius.
In trying to be equitable, when in essence there’s nothing intrinsically fair about golf, or life, the rules people have gone into so much detail that it’s become the devil, to understand and administer. And people like Simon Barnes, who was for many years the chief sports writer of The Times (London) and a disliker of golf and its mores, could thunder about the game’s “seismic pomposity” and call it “the game of the man who thanks God that he is not as other men are.”
Many of us golfers are, as you know, women and I’ve always been a bit sad that Simon detests us but then he writes this (a propos an incident involving a 16-year old Michelle Wie in her first tournament as a professional) and I find myself cheering:-
“That’s golf for you. A golfer must have a deep respect for rules. More: a worshipful respect for the rules. In golf, rules are not devices for running a contest: they are a fetish, a matter of faith, a religion….
“Rules! Rules about clothes, about behaviour, rules about balls, rules about clubs, rules about women, rules about rules.”
If he’d stopped there, I’d have kept cheering but he carried on:-
“Rules for the suffocation of individuality, of creativity, of artistry, of all those dangerous things that we don’t want in our world, the only world in which grass looks like a nylon carpet.”
Ah, this is a man who doesn’t know golf at all and has no interest in trying to understand it but, of course, he was writing a column called ‘Thunderer’ and the object was to go in all guns blazing. That doesn’t mean that we golfers should ignore his comments, because our rules do us no favours. Or is it just our interpretation of them?