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The Knowledge

The Bluffer’s Guide To Golf

With new rules now in play, here’s what to do – and what not to do – on the fairway

In the spring of 2019, something surprising happened in the normally sedate world of golf. After seven years of to-ing and fro-ing by the Royal and Ancient and US Golf Association, the rules of this 600-year game were changed. The new rules range from what happens if you accidentally hit your caddy with a ball to standards of conduct for players.

It can seem a little, well, overwhelming, when you consider the 150-page The Rules Of Golf, and the 34 rules, numerous sub-rules and, in many cases, sub-sub rules that are set out in this book.

To help new golfers, or experienced hands who don’t have enough life left in them to memorise each and every page, we went to Wentworth Club in Surrey, one of the game’s legendary venues, to boil things down to the essentials with two of the sport’s upper divinities. Mr Kenny Mackay (director of golf) and Mr Stuart Boyle (head of golf operations) are not only versed in the minutiae of the rules, old and new, but also on the standards of behaviour expected from all golfers – golf etiquette, if you will. This code of conduct applies equally to the world’s leading professionals, who compete each year at Wentworth in the BMW Championship, as much as anyone else.

Of course, the overarching principle is set in stone as Rule 01 and applies to life as much as golf: play by the rules and in the spirit of the game. Self-explanatory. As for the rest of them, Mr Mackay acknowledges, “very few players have a really good grasp of all the rules”. Here, then, is a handy primer on five essentials – old and new.

01. Play “ready golf”

One of the biggest challenges golf currently faces is the time it takes. When the R&A launched an international survey on pace of play, 60 per cent of the 56,000 golfers worldwide who responded stated they would enjoy golf more if it took less time. Improbably, golfing time has increased in recent years. “People do what they see the pros doing on TV,” says Mr Boyle. “Like taking an age to hit a shot, or walking around the hole five times before taking a putt.” No one wants to play with a dawdler.

One sure-fire way to avoid a five-hour round is playing “ready golf”, which the new rules mandate, meaning hitting your shot as soon as it’s safe to do so, no matter whose turn it is. “And if you know you can’t score on a hole,” adds Mr Mackay, “you don’t need to finish the hole. You can pick your ball up.” Mr Boyle advises playing from the tees that match your ability: “Average golfers might fancy playing the yardage as the top professionals, but the reality is it makes the course much, much harder, which means you are unlikely to enjoy your game as much.”

02. Respect for your fellow players

No matter how good or bad your golf is, a round represents an opportunity for respite from work – and, more especially, from the tyranny of mobile phones. Some courses view their use as a serious breach of etiquette for which the old rules mandated a one or two shot or even a loss-of-hole penalty. Nowadays, it’s up to the individual course – so think hard before removing your phone from your pocket.

Wentworth takes a relatively relaxed approach, more so than many top clubs, recognising that lots of players now use apps for their scoring or for working out yardages. “You’ve got to move with the times,” insists Mr Mackay. “But you’ve also got to observe etiquette by ensuring you’re not talking when your partner is preparing for or taking their shot, and by being aware of where they’ve hit the ball so you can help them to find it.” His advice is to at least try not to be on your phone too much during the round – it’s meant to be a social game, after all.

03. Respect for the course

When a golf ball lands on a green, it will often do so from great height and at considerable speed, leaving an indentation. Golfers should carry pitch forks, and pitch marks should be repaired by pressing the fork into the green and gently pulling the turf back into the middle of the cavity before tapping it down with the sole of the putter. “A pitch mark that’s repaired immediately will recover within 24 hours,” says Mr Mackay, “whereas one that’s left untreated can affect the smoothness of a green for up to two months.”

As the man responsible for maintaining Wentworth’s three championship courses in pristine condition (as well as its nine-hole Executive Course), Mr Mackay is acutely aware of how golfers’ failure to look after the course – repairing pitch marks, replacing divots, raking bunkers properly – can spoil the enjoyment of others.

His tips for the latter? “Always enter the bunker at the lowest point and take the rake with you. And after you’ve played your shot, retrace your footprints and rake them over forwards and backwards, so not to pull the sand away from the middle of the trap. Finally, after exiting the bunker, tap the bottom of your shoes with your putter to remove the sand, as you don’t want to deposit it on the green.”

04. Appropriate attire

Before visiting a club for the first time, always check on the dress code. “Football shirts and hoodies are obviously out,” advises Mr Boyle. “But at Wentworth, we don’t have a problem with the way clothing brands are bringing a more modern look to the game – it helps participation and widens the audience. If in doubt, contact the club.”

Some clubs, for example, do not approve of players putting their golf shoes on in the car park, or have dress codes for certain areas of the clubhouse at different times of day.

That said, golf is shedding its reputation as a sartorial graveyard, thanks to brands such as KjusRalph Lauren and Loro Piana, but many clubs still have specific rules on attire that dictate what is permissible on the course and in the clubhouse. So, sure, check the rules, and if they allow, don’t leave your style at home – bring it along with your clubs.

05. Do Your Homework

Perhaps, 275 years after the first rules of golf were drafted, there is at last an acknowledgement that the game is hard enough as it is.

The game’s ruling bodies recognise that the game has become too complicated, too penal and too slow, so they have made changes. If you are just starting to play the game, they are worth learning so some Mr Dawes-like figure doesn’t tell you off on the putting green.

Golfers are now allowed to leave the flagstick in for putts on the green (previously, a player would have been penalised if a putt from on the green struck the flagstick); three minutes rather than five are now permitted to look for a ball; and dropping under penalty now happens from the knee rather than shoulder-height, essentially to mitigate the number of re-drops.

In addition, golfers are no longer penalised if they accidentally hit themselves or their equipment with their ball; there is no penalty for a double hit (presumably, the embarrassment is now considered to be sufficient punishment); spike marks or animal damage on the green can be repaired before putting; grounding the club in a penalty area, such as a water hazard, is permitted; and free relief is now given to a plugged or embedded ball anywhere on the course.


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