January 2019: The month golf lost the plot

Rules of Golf

The first month of the new rules has thrown up more headlines than any of us could have predicted, writes Mark Townsend

Trying to explain golf to those unfamiliar with its nuances is pretty much impossible. At this time of the year much of the talk is generally over whether Rickie should tuck his shirt in – cue raised eyebrows and stifled yawns from those watching on for the first time.

This year, though, things would all be different. As from January 1 we would finally get to ask anyone and everyone whether they would be putting with the flag in or out. This, we thought, would be the theme for the first two weeks and then we would all carry on as normal.

The rest of the rules, the knee-high drops and the shortened time looking for a ball et al, would all quickly bed in and we could all go back to fascinating over Tiger’s chances in the majors, Rory’s form, Tommy’s hairdo, Spieth’s putter while making some uninformed observations over Justin Rose’s switch to Honma.

Trying to make predictions in golf is on a par with explaining any aspect of it to newcomers and the start to this year has been a pearler. It might interest you to know that Xander Schauffele, Matt Kuchar, Adam Long, Rose, Shane Lowry, Bryson DeChambeau, Dustin Johnson and Rickie Fowler are this year’s winners on the PGA and European Tours as all the headlines have centred around a hotchpotch of cock-ups and unwelcome tales.

The big one was Haotong Li’s final putt in Abu Dhabi and the subsequent statements from the European Tour and R&A poking their sticks at one another. Then there was Lucas Herbert and his ‘bad brain fade’ when he did a load of gardening in a sandy waste area in Dubai, Kuchar’s dubious payment rates cropping up from the end of last year, and we hadn’t even got to Saudi Arabia and the ‘grow the game’ parade.

Away from the Saudi International this past week was going to be all about how pissed thousands of people would get at a par 3 in the desert. It’s now ended up with Denny McCarthy receiving an absurd two-shot penalty for his caddie being accused of lining his player up, a ruling which was then rescinded in the middle of his third round the following day.

All this before Rickie Fowler’s ball made its own way back into the water for a further penalty shot that almost cost him the title.

Back in the Middle East, Sergio Garcia became the first player in European Tour history to be disqualified for misconduct which, when you consider what retribution some players have taken on various bunkers, advertising hoardings and their own bag, is some effort.

“In frustration I damaged a couple of greens, for which I apologise.”

This came via a statement rather than anything in person, though he did speak to the players who had the misfortune to be playing behind him. The actual truth, thanks to Martin Dempster’s excellent reporting in The Scotsman, was more like “damage to five greens on the front nine, mainly through dragging the sole of his golf shoe across the top of the putting surface in frustration but also leaving a divot mark on the 6th green, which was still apparent during the final round even though green staff had quickly repaired it on Saturday.”

The tournament director David Williams said the marks were “similar to what we sometimes see out in South Africa when a buck has run across a green. Over here it could have been a camel”.

Golf being golf, Garcia got to keep all his appearance fee and there will be no suspension.

“The incident is over,” explained the European Tour’s chief executive Keith Pelley. “We have dealt with it. Sergio has apologised to the players and we move on.”

The Spaniard spent Saturday night on a luxury yacht at a reception hosted by the chairman of the Saudi Golf Federation, while social media took advantage of the moment.

A common refrain from any football manager is “all we want is consistency”. For golf you can replace consistency with clarity.

One month into the new regime and we haven’t got it. Most of us are quite dizzy by the goings on already this season and they’re only set to continue with another statement, this time from the USGA, when they spoke out following McCarthy’s back-and-forth shambles.

“The USGA and The R&A recognise that further clarity on how to appropriately apply this Rule is needed. We are committed to assessing its impact and will provide the necessary clarifications in the coming days.”

There were two players and caddies’ rules meetings in Abu Dhabi, there has been nothing since, and I watched with much amusement as the great and good of the European Tour emerged looking like they had just sat through a two-hour seminar on biophysics.

On the one hand they all knew these rules were coming, on the other some of them are unquestionably slanted more towards the weird rather than the common sense.

Just a few weeks ago Phil Mickelson, in trying to win the Desert Classic, took five minutes to get to the bottom of a drop so straightforward that 90 per cent of your fellow members would have nailed it in under half the time.

“It can’t go forward, right?”

This from a man who wasn’t fazed at running after and hitting his ball during a US Open.

It might be early days and all that but they’re all terrified…

I texted one player in Saudi Arabia to get his early conclusions from the first month of the biggest rules revamp in the game’s history, the bulk of which were to simplify, make fairer and speed up the game.

“Players aren’t happy with a few rules, particularly the caddie lining up issue, think the rule might change soon or hopefully have it as a local rule on our hard card. I think the caddies are more scared as it’s such an easy thing to do to just walk behind a player,” he explained.

“To me it’s ridiculous, I think the R&A and USGA have made the game look stupid again. They need to clamp down on players like Bryson, taking two minutes to hit shots and putts.

“Knee-high drops are pointless and identifying your ball in the rough is very dodgy especially on lesser tours.

“Finally, for preferred lies you don’t have to mark your ball.”

He finished the message with an emoji depicting a man with his head in his hands.

The Rules of Golf, the gift that keeps on giving.

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