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Unwritten Rules
Lies, damned lies and golf.

I once played golf with a fellow golf writer (there’s a hint right there that this story is not about integrity) who had made no secret of his single-digit handicap. As our round began, I could see nothing off the tee or from the fairway that would suggest the skill of an accomplished player.

It was on the greens, though, where I observed the precise prowess of this “single-digit handicapper,” as I watched him routinely rake eight and 10-foot putts as “pickups” and “gimmees.”

Now the USGA has tried to level the playing field with both its Rules of Golf and the USGA Handicap System—the sport’s answer to both the U.S. Penal Code and the Americans with Disabilities Act. But in the same manner that our prisons are full to bursting and handicap parking spaces are routinely abused by the able-bodied, the Rules of Golf and the handicap system are subject to similar violations and abuses.

Consider the typical golf association team event. There is always a team in the fourth or fifth flight, normally reserved for those who struggle to break 100, that miraculously shoots about 18 under. I don’t think most of us start out being deceitful. It’s more that our perception of where we should be in skill level, based on the thousands we’ve sunk into the sport, leaves us with a sense that it can’t possibly be us making all those terrible swings and putts. It must be the course conditions that have us off our regular game.

The USGA understands this, and has evolved an elegant mathematical system that takes into account the various vagaries we often feel are at the root of our sub-par performance. Rating and slope represent the great “curve” in grading our performance on any given course. But we know that rating and slope alone cannot account for all the adverse conditions we may face (wind, cold, rain, an inattentive beverage cart girl), so we occasionally have to resort to a shorthand rating and slope of our own to more fairly represent how we really should be playing. These include: first tee mulligans, practice putting on the green, preferred lies, random declarations of “ground under repair,” expansive definitions of objects qualifying as “movable” or “temporary” (such as an automobile parked on the clubhouse lot, but with the keys inside).

What the USGA nobly attempts with course calibrations is what God himself strives for with the Ten Commandments. Which may explain why many see golf as a secular religion.

How many times is God (or his Son, for that matter) invoked on a golf course?

Don’t we beg the ball for the (generally brief) time it’s airborne to perform in opposition to the laws of gravity, pro-pulsion and vector physics—asking for a miracle, in essence—the same way we ask our creator to help us find our car keys in return for promising never to violate any of the Commandments again, with the exception of No. 3 (during any round), No.’s 8 or 9 (during the club championship) or No. 6 (upon having lost the club championship due to No.’s 8 or 9 being used against you by the eventual winner. (Note: King James Bible version of the Decalogue.)

In a big way, golf is a lot like attending religious services: We’re there to extol the image of the type of person we’d like to be, while begging private indulgence for the type of person we actually are.

Reid Champagne is known for his judicious application of the “foot wedge” on courses throughout the area.

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