2002: Golfweek Preferred - Getting bent: When the rules don’t apply

Hackers. Flakes. Stiffs. Dilettantes.

Every golf and country club has them, and it is never difficult dividing up the membership rolls by these – and other – categories. It also is easy to come up with new classifications, and the latest one I’ve added to my list is: Rule Benders.

Quite simply, Rule Benders are those who regularly skirt regulations that are supposed to govern club behavior. They are not bad people, and there is nothing dangerously destructive about their actions. But they have a hard time following certain precepts.

Take the deviant I know who cannot resist hitting practice balls off the range tee reserved for lessons. It doesn’t matter that there is a sign stating the site is for the exclusive use of the pros and their students. Nor does it seem important that the rest of the range often is empty. This golfer thinks nothing about dump- ing a bucket of balls on that tee and hitting one double-striper after other until he has shaved off a vast section of sod. It drives the pros crazy, but bothers the Rule Bender not one bit, even when he is chastised by club leaders.

There also is the member at my place who delights in bringing a pile of out-of-towners to the club’s beach section without paying the appropriate guest fees. This is a man who married so well he can afford to buy half my hometown. But damned if he will pay the $5-a-head charge for each nonmember, no matter what the rules say. What he does instead is lie to the guard at the security gate, hiding his guests in the back of his SUV as if they were illegal immigrants being smuggled across the border. When he makes his way past the checkpoint and parks by the beach, people start pouring from his vehicle like clowns out of a circus car.

Over the years, I have found that there are three types of Rule Benders. First is the longtime club member who feels he has been around for so many years that none of the laws and tenets apply to him any more. Then, there is the newcomer who is so wealthy, arro-gant and self-absorbed that he doesn’t think any rules apply to him. Certainly not something as insignificant (in his mind, of course) as where he can hit balls on the range. Finally, we have your basic rebel, the golfer who can take only so much authority and feels he is not really living if he is not crossing the line in some way, shape or form.

One could argue that club rules – whether written or merely understood – often are silly, capricious and completely unworthy of consideration (or adherence). There is some logic to that kind of thinking. I mean, is the empire really going to crumble if a male golfer dons a pair of short shorts? Will a fivesome on a slow weekday afternoon bring riots to the streets and dishonor to the fiefdom?

But the fact is, a club needs order to function properly, and order is best maintained by a strict and sensible set of rules.

Those edicts, however, get in the way of the Rule Bender, and the lengths to which he goes to circumvent them would be hilarious if they weren’t so annoying.

I’ve found that the practice range is perhaps the most fertile ground for that type of behavior. In addition to those who hit balls off the lesson tee, there are golfers who seem psychologically incapable of smacking their woods and irons from the designated section of turf set off by nylon ropes. To those members, the grass truly is greener on the other side, and that’s where they hit most of their balls – exactly where the head professional and course superintendent wish they wouldn’t.

I also marvel at the true New Englanders at my track who walk right out onto the range to pick up balls someone else already has hit – and paid for. It doesn’t matter that they are ripping off the club in some small way and putting themselves in grave physical peril as other golfers rain Pinnacles all around them. It’s just that they want to do things their way, and save a little money in the process. These are the same guys who fill their bag pockets with range balls to use on water holes, forgetting all the while that those balls belong to someone else.

Most clubs I know have banned cell phones, but I still see people use them all the time. They know they are wrong, but somehow feel that either sheepishness or a tremendous sense of self-importance will save them from any sanction. My favorite scene this past spring was of one of our members talking on his Nokia as he stood by a pay phone near the range, as if the transgression was a little less egregious since there was a legal land phone in the immediate vicinity. The caller looked so guilty and secretive, however, you would have thought he was selling crack rather than checking for messages.

The list goes on and on, from the guy who insists on bringing his dog to the course to the fellow who plays so much golf with his nonmember girlfriend that a friend jokingly asked if she was playing in the member-member tournament. There also is the father-son tandem that sneaks off the second tee to avoid taking a caddie, as well as the player who insists on driving his golf cart through the tall fescue grass like a combine through a field of wheat, even though signs tell him not to.

To them, it appears to come down to the same line of thinking: Rules not only are meant to be broken, they are meant to be bent.

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