Every sport has its code of conduct. High on golf’s list, north of “winner buys” and south of “no foot wedges,” is this: Help your playing partner try to find his lost ball. Whether it’s your opponent, boss, buddy, enemy or some old codger with whom you got paired on the first tee, you look. You make an honest effort, even if the guy’s been talking politics, taking three practice swings and offering unsolicited putting tips. Rule 35: Do unto others.
Ours is a high-minded culture that prides itself on moral and ethical purity, which may explain why, when alone, finding a lost ball puts us in such a tizzy. In the black-and-white world of fairways and greens, nothing so inflames our gray matter. When there are rules – sorry, Rules – and Decisions on Rules and Addendums to Decisions on Rules designed to cover every situation under the sun, including solar eclipses (Rule 6002-1.2: Impermissible to stare into), a simple twist of golfing fate is destined to get complicated.
Think about it. You’re in the trees looking for your own wayward ball – or, better yet, you’ve just found it, rewarded because you’re the kind of golfer who always helps others look – when, lo and behold, you spy a little round orphan huddled up to a root under an oak. Your first reaction is. . .
Admit it: You look in every direction to make sure (a) there isn’t a golfer striding up the opposite hole’s shared tree line like an evil twin, and (b) this isn’t some kind of YouTube prank. Nothing. A primal impulse overtakes you, a cocktail of adrenaline, anxiety and, yes, guilt – not for your actions, only your thoughts.
You pick up the ball as though it were a live grenade, carefully rubbing away any dirt as you spin it in your fingertips, hoping-hoping-hoping it’s a premium make and model, unscathed, with no scratches, slashes or stripes. A urethane cover, not balata. At minimum three-piece, not two.
In that moment, you are a golfing archaeologist on a dig in Egypt’s Valley of the Gods.
A find! O, happy day! Fortune’s fickle hand patted you on the back. The misery of your own wayward shot has been swept aside – indeed, were it not for that dreaded over-the-top pull-hook you’ve spent thousands of dollars on lessons trying to cure, you wouldn’t have found yourself in this miserable patch of roots and weeds and alighted upon this pristine orb now in your greedy little mitts.
Really, it’s a moment that transcends all sense of proportion, the quarter that lies heads-up on the sidewalk. (Given current ball prices, a $5 bill might be more appropriate.) The same no-nonsense stick who wouldn’t dream of buying a used ball in the pro shop giggles like a schoolgirl at his find. It’s not the economics, stupid. It’s the reversal of fortune, an act at which golf is paramount among all sports.
And yet, like all questionable highs, there is the comedown. The commiseration. There but for the grace of the golf gods go I . . . Being the sportsman you are, you can’t help but consider your luckless comrade, slashing through the high grass, bushes and leaves in vain, down five minutes, down a ball, down stroke-and-distance. Down.
Or was he just a lazy duffer? The guy who drops another ball from his pocket and takes a “traveling mulligan”?
Or too well-heeled to bother, fearful of soiling his custom-tailored trousers?
It’s a question as vexing as it is unanswerable. Which renders your next move the only logical one: Open the zipper to some secondary compartment in your bag and toss in your find.
Sure, it’s a better ball than the one you’re playing. But is it the Titleist Pro V1 of a rank amateur? The Top-Flite of a 21-handicapper? Does this Callaway HX have a hex?
For the moment, better safe than sorry. Let the newbie mingle with the general population and take it out another day, when its provenance is only a vague memory. It is an odd comfort, but a comfort nonetheless, to know that someday you’ll lose it, too, and golf’s cycle of life will continue.