A Different Game
A golfing story. Try to cast your mind back to the 2017 Open Championship in July.
Picture the scene: I'm playing in the Wednesday medal at Kilspindie and, as usual, the wheels are coming off. In my case it's been some time since my golf has seen wheels of any form, so that at least hints at some sort of low-level consistency.
I'm standing on the tee at the short 13th and my head is in my hands, having found it in myself to produce the worst shot of my entire season. My ball has just travelled in a desperate right-to-left arc, miraculously skirted the bunker at the green and finished six inches behind the wall, against a stone and in the deepest of rough. Any attempt to play it as it lies will result in my immediate demise as it rebounds from the wall – always assuming I don't miss it, in which case I'll escape with a broken wrist.
At this point, I suddenly start to play well. My strongest shot is the free drop, so I look for molehills, tractor paths and of course GUR signs and blue staked areas into which I can stretch at least one foot. Sadly, the 13th is a bit light on these excellent features and I forgot to pack a spare GUR sign in my bag for just such emergencies. A penalty drop it is.
By now almost five minutes have elapsed and my playing partners have that ‘pretend-not-to-be fed-up-waiting’ look. The group behind on the tee are standing, arms-akimbo, oozing body language that says ‘Stand aside and let us through.’ But I have my ball, so there's no need.
For my penalty drop, I have the choice of dropping no more than two club lengths not nearer the hole, or going as far back as I like directly in line with the hole. Unfortunately the latter means that I'll still have to negotiate the wall, so I choose to drop not nearer the hole, no more than two club lengths from where the ball was.
Back on the 13th tee, 12 separate ears are now emitting varying levels of steam, but that's not yet of concern to me. I've been on the hole for 12 minutes and after all I haven't lost my ball. What is of concern is that I'm not sure about where is the best place to take my penalty drop. If I simply drop two club-lengths to the right I'll still be behind that damned wall. What I need is to drop the ball where I can obtain a further free drop, so I'm back to looking for blue stakes, Ground Under Repair, tractor paths and... animal scrapes!
Despite my initial suggestion that tractors simply must pass across every part of the course at some point, my playing partners unhelpfully refuse to buy into the notion that the entire course is in fact a giant tractor path. This means that I'm obliged to search for a suitable animal scrape. Most people wouldn't know what to look for, but as a keen observer of nature I know the signs. Kilspindie is awash with larks, and to my great delight I discover a nest hidden at almost exactly the right spot to allow me to obtain free relief. Relieved, I finally take my penalty drop – right on top of the nest. There's a satisfying crunch and I know I'm in the right place.
I'm about to pick up my ball to claim a free drop when my two playing partners suddenly question whether I'm actually allowed to claim relief from a bird's nest. Is it an animal scrape? Is a bird an animal?
You'll understand that I'm none too happy about this act of sabotage. I insist that I'm entitled to a free drop, they insist otherwise. After a few moments, we agree to let the first waiting group on the tee play through us while I call the secretary on my mobile phone for a ruling. The three who pass through do so wordlessly without making any eye contact with our group.
The club secretary has decided that he needs to see the nest in question to make a ruling, so he jumps into a cart and sets off in our direction, although the first cart he tries has to be discarded because old Jimmy Cairns has completed his round in it and the battery is almost dead. But eventually he makes it out to the thirteenth green.
By now two more groups have played through us, for some reason shaking their heads as they pass by. In the meantime, my two playing partners have fallen asleep on the fairway, which, following a long dry spell, is beautifully dry. The secretary takes one look at my ball, asks what happens, then declares that I should ‘in fairness’ play the ball as it lies, especially as no rule seems to cover the matter and the eggs are now already scrambled anyway. But I'm ready for him: I have my R&A Rules and Decisions 'app' on my mobile phone and point triumphantly to Decision 1-4/9. Defeated, he shrugs his shoulders with one of those ‘it's only a Wednesday Medal’ expressions and awards me a free drop.
My dozing partners therefore come to just in time to see me finally play my third shot, a skinned pitching wedge which clatters into the pin and stops stone dead next to the hole, allowing me to tap in for a bogey four. Unfortunately, each of them takes five – quite an extraordinary outcome in the circumstances. The entire hole has taken around 30 minutes to play.
Then something even more extraordinary happens. Buoyed by my good fortune at the 13th, I now manage four birdies and a par over the next five holes to finish with a net 62. My playing partners, each of whom had been playing quite well, fade away towards the finish, and I arrive in the clubhouse to discover that I've won the Medal by one shot.
As you'd expect, I wander into the clubhouse Locker Room Bar full of bonhomie, and rather expect to be greeted with acclaim for my fine round. I'm looking forward to being applauded by my many fellow competitors for my determination, my competitive spirit, my refusal to let my shoulders drop when things go against me. Instead I'm greeted in stony silence, and I'm unable to make eye contact with anyone. Even my playing partners have decided that they're in too much of a rush for a quick drink. I'd have paid, too.
I really don't understand – this isn't what happens on the telly. But then again, as Bobby Jones almost said, Mr Speith plays a game with which I am not familiar.