SPRINGFIELD, N.J. – Rules, schmules.
There, I said it. Go ahead and hit me across the back of the legs with a red stake. Or a yellow one, if you prefer.
Did you hear about the rules controversy at the 98th PGA Championship on Friday, where Jordan Spieth took a bum drop from a gravel path along the right side of the par-4 seventh hole? Word is that the 23-year-old may get 3-5 years nearby in the Parsippany Penitentiary for being a rebel rulesbreaker.
Well, listen up, folks. There WAS no rules controversy on Friday. Spare me all the eye-catching headlines on yet “another” major rules imbroglio. Apologies to the Land of Twitterdom that runs our universe 140 characters at a time, but this wasn’t even worthy of a minor first-time warning. Spieth did nothing wrong.
Spieth got to his ball on the seventh hole and it was half-submerged in a puddle. That would be casual water on an artificially surfaced path – Decision 24-2b/1 for those of you playing at home on the Be The Neighborhood Rules Czar app on your mobile phone.
Spieth probably took longer than necessary to get his ball back in play, but that’s because he was meticulous in asking questions about his options. That’s the thing about life for a tour pro. One quick call, and an expert rules official arrives faster than a Domino’s delivery man. It’s like going through life with a constant “I’d like to use my Lifeline.”
In this case it was Brad Gregory, the former PGA of America rules chairman. He’s a guy who knows his GUR and his TIOs. He and Spieth worked to get a reasonable solution that would allow Spieth to hit his next shot, Gregory instructing him along the way, and Spieth took his stance, measured the drop area with his driver, put a tee in the ground and found a spot to drop. This writer was standing 10 feet away. Spieth even injected humor into the situation when one drop pitched forward and plunged into another puddle of water.
“Best drop I’ve ever done in my life,” he joked to the crowd gathered around so close it was if they were awaiting a bedtime story. “That was unbelievable hand-eye coordination.”
Once his ball was back on the path free of the casual water, Spieth took his stance, addressed the ball as if he were to play it, and got the thumbs up to play on from Gregory – ahem, the expert rules official. That’s all Spieth needed, though surely Mitch from Montauk and Sal from Summit soon were lighting up the phone lines once they saw one of Spieth’s spiffy Under Armour golf shoes hovering over a puddle.
Spieth assessed his situation, facing 190 yards with some trees in front to negotiate, then elected to play in a slightly different direction than he originally planned – something he totally was within the rules to do. In fact, playing in a different direction is allowed under Rules of Golf Decision 20-2c/0.8.
That he blasted a terrific shot up and over that pitched onto the green, then tumbled into the rough past the green (he’d make bogey) is totally beside the point. The point is this: Rules, schmules. We have way too many. They are way too confusing. Too complicated. Tougher to follow than an opera doubleheader.
Media members and every Joe Bag-a-Donuts from Couch Potato U produced instant finger-pointing accusations/charges that Spieth had run afoul from the rules because he had not taken complete relief. That he even had “cheated.”
Spieth’s post-game presser wasn’t about how solidly he’d played in shooting 3-under 67, getting himself back into the tournament after spending most of his opening day over par, but filled with questions about his “complicated” drop.
Hey, man, did you hit that ball with a toe in the water?
“I would have never hit it if I was not told it was OK by a rules official,” Spieth said. “He told me it was fine. Really don’t know why we’re talking about it, to be honest.”
Amen. Fact is, after exercising the option to slightly change his angle of attack, within the rules and his rights, Spieth could have played the shot floating from an inner tube and drinking lemonade while inside the puddle.
It’s been the Summer of Rules. They’ve dominated our game. From the delayed penalty that was DustinGate at Oakmont (postscript: he didn’t cause his ball to move) to some crumbling granules of sand moving when Anna Nordqvist grounded her iron in a bunker during a playoff at the U.S. Women’s Open.
How do you attract new players to the game when the Rules of Golf are so complicated that you actually have a Decision titled 20-2c/0.8? I mean, I’ve only been playing golf for 44 of my 53 years on this Earth, and I have a better chance of acing the LSAT as a law neophyte or quoting the first 1,476 pages of the IRS tax code than correctly giving you the ins and outs of Rule 23: Loose Impediments.
I mean, when you need dashes, numbers, letters and decimal points to move a golf ball six inches out of a muddy puddle, aren’t we a tad too serious here? I mean, this all started out with a couple of Scottish guys banging rocks across a field with a stick toward some dug-out hole 320 yards away. Back then, the “nearest point of relief” was a flask of Scotch.
Hey, a guy I play with all the time – on different continents, no less – always carries 15 clubs. We survive. When my Saturday beer golf buddies spray one into the woods never to find the little ball again, they don’t march back 250 yards to the tee to hit another. And I’m guessing a bunch of 28-handicappers do not abide by the one-ball rule, even if they do buy them in 15-packs.
I get it, golf needs structure. The game needs rules. But this many? With decimal points? Can we not pull together, nominate a three-person Common Sense Committee, and simplify them a bit?
This one still sticks with me: At the 2003 British Open, Englishman Mark Roe shot one of the rounds of his life on Saturday, a 67 at Royal St. George’s that pulled him to within two shots of the lead. Roe shot the score, fellow competitor Jesper Parnevik watched him shoot it, as did a walking official, standard bearer, 35,000 fans and a worldwide television audience.
But Roe and Parnevik had not exchanged scorecards to begin the day, so Roe was disqualified because the beautiful round of golf he’d just played was recorded on the wrong piece of paper. A wrong piece of paper! That rule, thankfully, has been changed. But not in time to save Mark Roe.
On Thursday at Baltusrol, Zach Johnson had a strange one. Somehow, a twig had embedded into the ground on the seventh green and was sticking up into the air between Johnson’s ball and the hole. He called in one rules official to study it, who then grabbed his radio and called in another higher-ranking official.
Ernie Els, a four-time major winner and member of the World Golf Hall of Fame, watched this, having already finished the hole, leaning up against the fence off the eighth tee.
“We play a sport in a ballpark that’s six miles big,” Els said, shaking his head in disbelief as he held his thumb and forefinger a half-inch apart, “and we’re stopped because of a stick that’s this big.”
He laughed. Johnson got to remove the stick, without penalty. Probably, oh, just harboring a guess, Decision 88-3y/0.146.
As long as the Rules of Golf and its sidecar pal, Rules and Decisions, continue to compete against “War and Peace” for the thickest book on your bedroom dresser, this game isn’t going – or growing – anywhere. It’s just too intimidating.
Hey, whack me with a stake if you’d like. Rules, schmules.