Golf rules face new assault
FEW people know them intimately and many people fall foul of them inadvertently.
But the rules of golf are the commandments that ensure millions of players around the world are able to enjoy what is, surely, one of the most honourable of sports.
The first set of rules committed to paper for golf, as far as we know, dates back to March 7, 1744, and was produced by a bunch of Scots called the Gentlemen Golfers of Leith.
There were 13 rules in all, and written out they would not even come close to filling one side of A4 paper.
And they do make delightful reading.
Rule 10, for example, states: “If a ball is stopp'd by any person, horse or dog, or anything else, the ball so stopp'd must be play'd where it lies.”
These days we have 34 rules of golf, each of which has numerous sub-clauses, appendices and definitions, and they are presented in a neat little booklet of 208 pages.
Whereas the gents of Leith encapsulated playing a ball as it lies in one sentence, the same situation today (Rule 13) covers a smidge over two pages.
But these are the rules we play by and they do actually seem to work.
So why change them?
The issue raised its head again last month at the annual golf equipment jamboree that is the PGA Merchandise Show in Florida.
As well as spruiking his company's latest products, Taylor Made-adidas chief executive Mark King suggested that, rules-wise, things have got to change.
Now King is a smart cookie. He has been in the golf business a long time and Taylor Made has a reputation for innovation with its golf equipment.
But maybe the company's top man had a few too many coffees the day he championed the cause of developing two sets of rules for golf – one set that would apply to the elite players such as Tiger Woods, and one set designed for the likes of you and me.
“We are not getting new people to come into the game,” King told American magazine Golfweek.
“Even when we do attract new golfers, they leave within a year.”
And the reason all these potential customers quit the game, said King, is because it's no fun. It's really hard.
It's really hard?
Not really the justification for a major restructuring of a sport that has been in existence for more than 250 years you would think, but King wants change.
The twin-track approach to the rules that King suggests is not a wholly new idea. The concept even has a catchy name: bifurcation.
That means the pros play by their rules and we get a set that makes the game easier and, therefore, more enjoyable.
One of King's suggestions was making the hole a bit bigger for recreational players, and in the past it has been mooted that the professionals should play with a different ball, one that doesn't fly so far, and also that leisure players should be able to use equipment that is currently deemed illegal.
Anything, in effect, to make the game less damn difficult.
But where does it end?
Part of golf's appeal is that we get to play with the same equipment as the top players, and, if we can afford it, the same courses, too.
We can measure ourselves against the likes of Tiger, Phil or Adam on a fairly level playing field.
Now that might sound like a one-sided battle but with the same equipment we can look at a shot played by one of the pros and think, “I could do that, or even better,” and then give it a try.
A few years ago, I was lucky enough to play the Open Course at Moonah Links only a short time after the Australian Open was played there.
In that event, local product Paul Sheehan finished tied for second, one shot behind Robert Allenby.
On the final hole Sheehan had about a five-metre putt for birdie to send the tournament into a play-off.
A difficult putt with the subtle breaks on the course and he wasn't able to sink it.
Now there's a big difference between knowing what Sheehan did and actually replicating it, let alone bettering it. The seven-time winner on the professional circuit made an easy two putt.
He didn't smash his first putt well past the hole and end up having to buy a jug of beer for his playing partners because he finished the day with a four putt.
That was someone else.
But hey, I had the chance to give it a try.
Recreational golfers have the chance every now and then to walk in the same footsteps of the giants of the game.
Quite frankly that's how I like it, same rules and all.