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The Rules of Golf – a shining beacon for our new world order?

June 10, 2018

We all need rules. Not only in our everyday lives, but particularly in our sporting activities. Which means that we also need high priests, gurus, lawyers and judges to interpret and apply them.

Last week I was playing in a golf competition and made a mistake through my ignorance of the rules. As a result, I fell on my sword and disqualified myself. I accepted the word of one of my peers that I’d screwed up, even though I felt that the rule in question was bloody ridiculous. I do respect rules, even if I don’t like them.

When I got home, out of curiosity I consulted the rule book, which is a volume produced jointly by the Royal and Ancient Golf Club and the American Golf Association. They are the governing bodies for golf in the UK and the USA, two of the world’s most prominent golfing nations. What they say goes for the rest of the world.

Now you would think that a game that involves hitting a little white ball down a demarcated piece of land is a simple activity. In essence it is. Or it was until it became a multi-billion dollar business in which fortunes depend on the ability of professionals not only to play the game well, but to do so free from infraction.

The Rules of Golf is a reference book that I rarely visit. In my advanced years, and as I approach my second adolescence, I find myself increasingly disinhibited, and less inclined to take kindly to obscure rules rarely invoked. A bit like Donald Trump, actually, except that I don’t cheat at golf.

As a book, it’s quite interesting in a gruesome kind of way. My version is 228 pages long.

Think about that. 228 pages of rules, clauses, sub-clauses and appendices to get that white ball from one end of the course to the other.

In one respect, it’s an outstanding testament to international cooperation, as well as a relic of imperial dominance. On the back of the book there’s a simple statement:

Golf is a global game and The R&A and the USGA have issued this single set of Rules to apply worldwide to all golfers.

Wow. So golf is ruled by Britannia and Uncle Sam! This surely is one area in which the special relationship survives and thrives. Though I can imagine hours of tense negotiations during which the R&A insisted that it should be referred to as The R&A as opposed to just any old R&A, whereas the USGA was content with leaving the definite article in the humble lower case. Such things obviously matter. Whoever negotiated that one should definitely be leading Britain’s Brexit team currently doing battle with the European Union.

On Page 2, there is a qualification of the statement on the back cover. Apparently the USGA rules golf in US territories and Mexico. The R&A holds sway over the rest of the world. Or rather, “it operates with the consent of its affiliated bodies”. Still, even though the Vanuatu Golf Association could theoretically break free of the R&A’s iron grip and write its own rules, as far as golf is concerned more of the world atlas is coloured British pink than the British Empire ever managed.

I won’t bore you with the details of the rules themselves, which are full of stuff that will be understood only by golfers, including “a player is entitled to place his feet firmly in taking his stance, but must not build a stance”, which presumably rules out the use of spades, mechanical diggers and breeze blocks.

What I do find amusing is that there are groups of people who hold competitions with each other to demonstrate their knowledge of the hallowed book – something along the lines of pub quizzes, I imagine.

Golf has not yet reached the status of a religion, wherein followers gain great prestige by learning a scripture in its entirety – the Holy Quran for example – but it definitely has its high priests. Every golf club has one or two self-appointed pharisees who solemnly quote chapter and verse to the rest of us. Which is a good thing, especially for people like me who need to be put right from time to time. And I’m pretty sure that there are grand masters out there who do know the book by heart.

There may even be people who, for the hell of it, take it upon themselves to memorise the detailed specifications that govern the size, shape and properties of golf equipment. As far as I’m concerned the example below might just as easily enable you to build a nuclear bomb:

As it is with golf, so it is with every other organised sport. Over centuries, thousands upon thousands of hours have been spent codifying and re-codifying, building layer upon layer of increasingly complex rules so that people like me don’t end up embedding our putters in the skulls of opponents with whom we disagree.

The fact that most of us happily whack the white ball back and forth without feeling the need to commit murder, and that regardless of where we are in the world we abide by a single set of rules, is surely an example to our politicians who spend much of their lives negotiating rules scarcely less complex.

And the fact that the leaders of six out of the G7 group of countries, after their annual summit ended yesterday, found it impossible to persuade the seventh to agree on a joint communique that included the statement that they believed in a “rules-based trading system” is somewhat surprising, especially as the recalcitrant Donald Trump is a golfer, which makes his role in renouncing the idea that his country should be bound by rules not of its own making doubly strange.

Perhaps he has forgotten the overriding principle of the game he loves: “when two or three are gathered together in the name of golf, the R&A and the USGA will be among them”.

But then maybe we shouldn’t be surprised, because Trump, if we are to believe his critics, wrote the rule book on cheating, if not at golf, almost certainly in other aspects of his life.

If so, he will probably meet his match in Kim Jong Un, whose dynasty has a rich history of cheating. Kim also has distinguished golfing antecedents. His father, Kim Jong Il, apparently once took a mere 34 shots to go around the Pyongyang Golf Course, a round that included no less than five holes-in-one. The elder Kim’s feat was witnessed by no less than seventeen armed guards. So it must have happened.

No doubt they will have much to discuss. It’s a pity the lawmakers of golf won’t be there to keep them honest.

From → Politics, Social, Sport, UK, USA

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