Golf is the only sport in which competitors are expected to call penalties on themselves. Recently, during a playoff at the 2016 Verizon Heritage tournament, Brian Davis called a penalty on himself because he disturbed a stray reed on his backswing in a red-staked hazard. The penalty cost him what would have been his first PGA Tour victory. At the Australian Open in 2007, Brandt Snedeker leaned over to remove a leaf. The ball moved. He called a penalty on himself and lost the tournament by one stroke. Given the prize money, that penalty cost Snedeker $200,000. Playing with a ball or club not approved by the PGA, signing a scorecard with an incorrect score on a hole, and hitting a moving putt have all been occasions when professional golfers have “turned themselves in” and, often, been disqualified as a result.
The most famous case of this sort was probably Bobby Jones who called a penalty on himself at the 1925 U.S. Open because he claimed that he saw (no one else did) his ball move. When asked why he had done so—when even tournament officials said there was no infraction—Jones replied: “You might as well praise me for not breaking into banks. There is only one way to play this game.”
Such examples reflect an ethical code that surrounds the game of golf. And, yet, amateurs fudge “the rules” all the time. Let us count the ways:
- The “gimme”—can be anywhere from a foot to a yard (despite the high incidence of missed putts that amateurs commit under pressure from these distances). Notwithstanding the times when “gimmes” are used to speed up play, more often than not they relieve the golfer of the pressure of having to make a short putt.
- Bumping the ball to improve the lie all year—an action technically allowed only in wet weather under “winter rules.”
- A putt is shooting past the hole and the golfer reaches over in a desultory way to tap it back toward the hole, even while it’s moving, with the false and self-serving assumption that it was going to be a “gimme” anyway. Often this “tap-in” isn’t recorded in the score for that hole. Or, if it is, the fact that the ball might have ended up 4 feet past the hole, with a tricky comeback putt, is ignored.
- A mulligan is announced suddenly, without the foursome having any prior agreement that mulligans are accepted.
- Red and yellow stake rules, rules for dropping off a cart path, playing unplayable lies, etc. are never learned, thus leading the golfer to make corrections and invent solutions that invariably lessen the penalties involved.
- Miscounting one’s number of strokes on a hole. This is much more common than most golfers will admit. One golfer admitted to us that he tended to put down a score that he thought he should have made on certain holes, not the one he actually made.
In all of these cases, the common psychological dynamic lies in the resistance many golfers have to facing reality. They play the hole and eke out a score that they think they should get rather than the one they really did get. I should –and more often than not do –make a 3-foot putt, and, so, if the ball is within 3 feet of the hole, I might as well consider it already successfully putted. But it hasn’t been putted. Such putts are part of the game, part of the reality of a round of golf.
“Gimmes” are a form of subterfuge, an end-run around reality.
The reality that such small acts of dishonesty disavow is the reality of imperfection, human frailty, and fate. And yet, reality is obdurate and can’t be denied without consequences. It’s too bad if your ball winds up in on a hard clay patch in the fairway, much less in a divot. In golf, we “play it as it lies.” We are expected to surrender to reality, not deny it.
Instead, too many of us object, we rail and protest, we feel that the universe, the golfing gods have been unfair to us. “I would have made it, so why not just give it to me?” Or, “Goddammitt—I’m in a divot,” we yell–making sure that everyone knows that we have an excuse for our next shot.
Unfortunately, the reality is that we are imperfect and not omnipotent.
Missed short putts, divots, and double bogeys happen, just as “life” happens. We age, lose loved ones, suffer romantic disappointments, get “downsized,” and live through natural disasters. Sometimes we shank the ball, miss a tap-in, or wind up in sand or water. These are all unpleasant realities with which human beings—including golfers—have to cope. Our attempts to deny them momentarily relieve our frustration, the “narcissistic injury” of life or fate not quite working out the way we want them to. We’re relieved, but at the cost of private feelings of fraudulence and a thinning sense of self-confidence.
Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr authored a prayer that 12 – step groups have been using for over 75 years. It goes: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.” We can get better at golf, but we will never be flawless playing it.
To the degree that golf captures the joys and sorrows of life, we might consider trying to just live life on its own terms and not magically pretend that we can control those terms.