Originally published July 2003
Ben Curtis is like the guy standing at a bus stop when the burglar comes running up to him with a Hefty bag full of hundred-dollar bills and says, "Hold this a second, will ya?"
Curtis didn't win the British Open. He happened to be the only one left standing after everybody else ran out of luck or sand.
If golf's rules weren't moldier than Madame Curie's underwear drawer, Thomas Bjorn would have been the winner. Or possibly Mark Roe. Let's just test your knowledge of the dumbest set of rules in sports. (The proper response to each item is, "That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard!")
1. Bjorn would have won the Open by one shot if not for a two-stroke penalty he got in the first round on Thursday. After he left a bunker shot in the bunker, he slammed his wedge into the sand in disgust. That's considered "testing the condition" of the sand (Rule 13-4/35 in The Rules of Golf). Of course, that's dumber than dirt, because Bjorn wasn't testing the surface at all -- he'd just played a shot from the stuff! Bjorn now becomes Best Player Ever Penciled Out of a Major.
2. "But the rules do not see gray areas," you say. Oh, yes, they do. If Bjorn had leaned on his club in the sand to keep from falling? No penalty (13-4/2). If he'd absentmindedly stuck an umbrella or a rake in the bunker before he played? No penalty (13-4/20). Of course, this is a game that lets you move a dead snake, but not a live one (23-6.5), so go figure.
3. Also on Thursday, Phil Mickelson (0-for-45 in majors compared with Curtis's 1-for-1) was nicked with a one-stroke penalty because his ball moved in the 35-mph wind as he was addressing it with his putter (18-2/a). Mickelson said the wind moved his ball six or seven other times that day when he wasn't ready to putt. So what do you do, have your manager call God?
4. Roe shot the best round of the Open, a 67 on Saturday, to sneak to within two shots of the lead. Except he'd forgotten to exchange scorecards with his playing partner, Jesper Parnevik, who, being loonier than a $1 Canadian coin, also forgot. In the end, Roe mistakenly signed the card for Parnevik's 81 and Parnevik signed for Roe's 67, and both were disqualified (6-6d/4). Can you imagine this happening in other sports? Uh, Shaq, you signed for 38 points and you only scored 36, so the Pacers win the title!
5. On Sunday of this year's Masters, leader Jeff Maggert hit a bunker shot that ricocheted off the lip of the bunker and hit him in the chest. He got a two-stroke penalty (19-2b) and missed the playoff by four shots. But why? Did he do it intentionally? Did he think, You know what I'll do? I'll bank this one off the lip, off my forehead and 125 yards onto the green. Please!
6. "Ah, but the rules can't assume intent," you say. Oh, yes, they can. The rule book is full of references to "intention." If you "flick" a range ball out of your fairway, it's fine. If you intentionally hit it as though to practice, it costs you two shots (7-2/5). Why didn't the rule makers consider the intent in situations like the ones involving Bjorn and Roe?
7. At this year's U.S. Women's Open, Alison Nicholas, a Florence Nightingale sort, gently nudged a spider out of her putting line with a tee. She was assessed a two-shot penalty (16-1/a). Yet if she had moved the spider with her hand or her putter or her seven-iron, no penalty.
8. "Do you realize," says Tour pro Tom Lehman, "that if your ball is hanging on the lip of the hole, you only have 10 seconds to putt it in [16-2]? Sometimes, you can even see it rolling forward, but you have to putt it in 10 seconds, or it's one shot [penalty]. So they're telling you to hit a ball that's moving, which is also illegal."
9. You make a hole-in-one. You find that the ball is trapped between the flagstick and the edge of the hole, but it's not in the bottom of the cup. Jubilant, you pull the ball out and kiss it. Too bad that you've actually made a 3: one, the shot; two, a one-stroke penalty for picking up the ball; three, you have to place the ball on the lip of the hole and putt out (17-4/1). You remove the laces from your golf shoes and hang yourself.
10. The whole rule book is just dumber than Elimidate. Having to hit out of a divot in the middle of a fairway is the "worst rule in golf [13-1]," says Tiger Woods. And do you realize you can get 100 members of the gallery to move a 2,000-pound rock off a green (23-1/3), but you can't shake the water off the branch of a tree before hitting (13-2/23)?
Meanwhile, the rule that's killing golf goes ignored. That's the one that's supposed to keep the distance of the ball down (Appendix III/5). Golf's out-of-control equipment companies have so juiced the balls that our best courses -- Pebble Beach, Pine Valley, Merion -- are obsolete, not long enough for major tournaments now. Did you know that guys like Curtis were hitting driver, sand wedge to the par-5 7th hole on Sunday?
Someday the lumps of dandruff who run golf are going to realize they're worrying about spiders while elephants are stomping the game flat.
Rick Reilly, a senior writer for Sports Illustrated, has been voted national sports writer of the year eight times. His latest book, Who's Your Caddy?, recounts his misadventures caddying for tour pros like Jack Nicklaus and David Duval