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By The Book

Golf's rules of the game confuse many players but preserve the sport's integrity
Jeff Williams
From the Print Edition:
Dennis Haysbert, Nov/Dec 2006

In 1978, Tom Kite stood over a birdie putt on the fifth hole at the Pinehurst No. 2 course. He was an aspiring young professional with one tournament victory, and now he was contending in the final round of the Colgate Hall of Fame Classic, giving the much ballyhooed Tom Watson a run for the money.

When Kite soled his putter behind the ball at address, the ball moved ever so slightly, just the barest fraction of an inch, a movement undetected by anyone around him. Neither his playing partner, Howard Twitty, nor any of the gallery saw a thing. The movement would not have given him the slightest advantage or affected the outcome of his putt.

But Tom Kite knew what he had to do. He called a penalty shot on himself, much to the surprise of Twitty. Instead of a birdie try, now he was attempting to save par. He missed, made bogey and lost the tournament to Watson by one shot. "I called it because I play golf," says Kite, now a member of the Champions Tour. "If you don't play by the rules, you aren't playing golf. You're playing some abbreviated form of it."

Do you think a basketball player is going to call traveling on himself? Do you think a baseball player is going to say he didn't touch second base after trotting out his game-winning home run? Do you think a football player is going to tell a referee that he was holding on the play and should be penalized? Do you think a hockey player is going to say, "Excuse me, but I just slashed that guy and should be in the penalty box for two minutes"?

Golf is different. Yes, it's an odd game, subtly athletic and maddeningly mental. Players chase around a ball for hours at a time to deposit it in a small hole. The best players—a Tiger Woods or a Phil Mickelson or an Ernie Els—do so with awe-inspiring proficiency, and the worst players do it with stomach-churning ineptitude. But Woods and a 36-handicapper are bound together in one overriding way—by the Rules of Golf. The rules are central to the game and to the ethics of its players.

"The Rules of Golf are an incredible character reference," says four-time major championship winner Raymond Floyd. "If you lived your life by the Rules of Golf, you'll be a stand-up citizen. The Rules of Golf go right to your integrity as a person. Are you going to shoot a 6 and write down a 5? The first thing I told my two boys and my daughter when they started to play golf is that you count every swing and don't move the ball. Playing by the Rules of Golf shows respect for the game and respect for those you are playing against."

In the late '70s, Floyd was leading the Westchester Classic when he lipped out a birdie putt, the ball stopping six inches from the hole. His two playing partners, expecting him to make the next putt, turned away and walked to the next tee. When Floyd soled his putter, the ball moved a touch. He had held the playing honor on the previous hole, and his partners expected him to hit away first when he got to the next tee. "I made bogey," he told them. "The ball moved."

That's what makes golf so different from other sports. There are no zebras chasing every play, blowing whistles for the infractions that are constantly committed. Golf isn't about what you can get away with, and if you try to get away with bending the rules, you will only succeed in sullying your reputation.

There is a difference, of course, between tournament play and everyday play, between those who play for money or the glory of amateur triumph, and those who play for fun and the delicious prospect of taking two bucks off their best friend. But even in casual golf, the overall ethics of the rules must be respected, and egregious attempts to break them are usually met with disfavor. Above all, the game requires a player to police himself.

"You are the only one who knows," says Floyd. "Rules do not hurt players. They are there to help you and to keep the playing field even. Out of respect for the game, you should play by them."

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