Wednesday, August 25, 2010

What's wrong with golf?

It's a singular question, but there's no shortage of answers.

We're only 10 days removed from assessing the PGA of America's blunder in the Dustin Johnson is-it-a-sand-trap-or-isn't-it embarrassment at the PGA Championship, and already the LPGA Tour and PGA Tour have found ways to hog the stupidity spotlight.

I suppose Dustin Johnson should at least be grateful the dimwit tour officials didn't disqualify him at the PGA for failing to realize that the sandy waste area where his ball came to rest on the final hole of the final day was in fact a bunker, and that he wasn't allowed to ground his club before striking the ball. I wonder where he got the idea it wasn't a bunker? You think maybe it was the hundred or so spectators standing in said sand trap?

I don't know about you, but where I come from (reality), spectators aren't allowed to stand in a sand trap. And if they are, all bets are off.

All Johnson got was a two-stroke penalty, but that was enough to knock him out of a potential three-man playoff at the year's final major. Long after people have forgotten who won (German Martin Kaymer, and much praise to him), golf fans and even casual observers will remember what morons the PGA of America officials were for blindly adhering to a particularly specious judgment call.

Juli Inkster and Jim Furyk, who between them have 45 years of professional golf experience and more than 60 tournament wins, weren't as lucky as Johnson. In the past week, both were DQ'd for violations that can only charitably be described as insane. The disqualifications cost both players dearly, revealing yet another problem with golf: Quite often, punishments far exceed the crime. In golf, jaywalkers get life without parole.

Inkster's DQ from the Safeway Classic in Oregon last week would be comical if not for the fact that the 50-year-old "grande dame" of the LPGA Tour had just shot a second-round 67 that moved her to within three shots of the lead. Her crime? While waiting out a delay midway through her round, Inkster tried to stay loose by taking practice swings with a swing weight attached to her 9-iron.

This is a violation of the United States Golf Association's Rule 14-3 in the USGA's "Rules of Golf," which prohibits the use of practice devices during play. I'm not going to argue that this is a stupid rule. I get that the USGA is concerned with giving any player an unfair advantage.

But let's set the rule aside for a moment. How did LPGA Tour officials know Inkster had violated Rule 14-3? Had a fellow touring pro observed her doing this and informed tournament officials? Nope. Did a tournament official see it for themselves? Nope. A spectator at the golf course? Wrong again.

None of these scenarios happened, I'll bet because none of them were aware of Rule 14-3's prohibition against using a swing weight during play. Inkster certainly wasn't aware of it; if she were, she wouldn't have done it. Let's add this context: Juli Inkster has won 39 tournaments as a pro, 31 on the LPGA Tour since joining in 1983, including majors Kraft Nabisco Championship, LPGA Championship and U.S. Women's Open twice each, and the du Maurier (Canada's top event) in 1984 when that event was still considered a major. She's a member of both the World Golf Hall of Fame and the LPGA Hall of Fame, and she won the U.S. Women's Amateur (an event, like the Women's Open, run by the USGA) three straight years before turning pro.

It's a safe assumption that Juli Inkster has a pretty good understanding of the rules of golf. However, my guess is she can't quote the "Rules of Golf" chapter and verse. I imagine there are no more than five people in America who know the USGA rules by heart, and all five have a 5-iron up their butt. It was Inkster's misfortune that one of those anal-retentives spied her on the Golf Channel's coverage of the Safeway Classic, then (continued cranial-rectal thinking here), e-mailed the tour event to call Inkster on her egregious error.

It was at this point that the LPGA Tour folks could have, should have taken this information and said, "Thank you, but get a life." Instead, they viewed footage of the Golf Channel coverage with, one imagines, the seriousness of Congress poring over the Zapruder film of Kennedy's assassination. Satisfied that Inkster "cheated," they DQ'd her.

And isn't upholding the integrity of golf what it's all about? No sport but golf allows Joe Blow at home to affect the outcome of a sporting event. A know-it-all who felt obligated to share his "vast" knowledge was rewarded. These kind of people should be ignored, and whoever had to tell Inkster in person that she was DQ'd should be ashamed.

Furyk, meanwhile, was DQ'd from the Barclays Championship, this week's PGA Tour event in New Jersey, for doing nothing on the golf course. All he did was oversleep and show up late for his tee time in the Wednesday pro-am that precedes the event scheduled to start Thursday. He relied on his cell phone alarm to wake up, and was delayed when the phone's battery died. I'm hoping that's the last time he does that.

Again, that's not really the point. It's the subsequent DQ, why the PGA Tour felt it was necessary, and why it's so stupid. In an effort to cut down on tour pros begging off pro-ams with questionable illnesses or injuries, the PGA Tour a few years ago decreed that anyone who fails to show for a pro-am would also be DQ'd from that week's tour event.

Now we're talking about something not even addressed in the rules of golf. This is a corporate entity doing what it can to protect itself financially. The ams in pro-ams are mostly CEOs of companies that sponsor VIP tents and tournaments themselves. What tour officials could have, should have done was to fine Furyk, but let him finish the pro-am and compete in the Barclays this week.

That Furyk made every effort to get to the golf course and probably would have missed, at most, one hole of the pro-am, was rejected. Rules are rules, and, by golly, we gotta have rules.

Furyk's a big boy, he makes good money and probably won't suffer lasting harm from this episode. Heck, he might even get an alarm-clock endorsement contract.

But the PGA Tour will suffer for shooting itself in the foot. It's not a smart thing to do, especially since the tour is already suffering from investing so much time and effort (too much time, if you ask me) in continued promotion of its one-time golden boy, Tiger Woods.

Corporations, though, are not real good at big-picture perspective. Witness the blunders of BP following the Gulf oil spill.

And the PGA of America, the LPGA Tour and PGA Tour are corporations. They'd like to think they enhance the game, but the truth is they just as often muck it up.

To them, golf is a business. To me, it's a game.

I went golfing on my birthday this week. On a day in which the mercury reached 106, it seemed like I had turned back the clock 25-30 years, to when I could really play. I was 3 under par on my first nine holes and still 3 under with four holes left, but bogeyed three of the final four to finish at even-par 72. Despite the obvious disappointment over my collapse, which I attribute in no small part to the heat, I was excited by the way I played.

Good play will keep me coming back, just as it does for most golfers. It's the search for the great drive, the well-struck iron, the perfect putt.

There's not much wrong with golf. Sometimes, there is something wrong with the folks that claim to administer the game.

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