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Rulebook: The Unwritten “Rules” of Golf – What Page Is That One On?

The "gimme" length putt

w/ Rich McLean – Golf Canada Referee

In the world of casual or “non-tournament” golf, where 99% of us play our rounds, there are a series of unwritten rules that many of us use from time to time. They may not be carved in stone, but they’re there just the same. Some are innocuous, some are loosely related to actual rules or etiquette, some are directly related to the rules, and some are just downright goofy. 

The “Mulligan” 

The origin of the mulligan has never been conclusively proven (including its derisive link to Irish ancestry). However, it’s become as ingrained in golf’s language as the terms tee, ball, and club. A shot hit so terribly that it warrants the ultimate do-over. A “second serve” as it were. Someone talked in your backswing, or a car horn honked, or a bug flew in your eye. All the others in your group have been there before, and consent is usually unanimous, your last shot never happened. Drop or tee up another ball and continue on as if nothing happened. Most groups usually agree that no more than one per player is allowed per round (otherwise we might as well just be playing tennis). There are even variations, one of which is my favourite. The “breakfast ball”. Your tee time is either so early in the morning that the range isn’t open, or you’re five minutes from your time and you’re still standing behind your car putting on your shoes. The first swing is a freebie. If it goes well, you carry on. If you fold the sod over it, it’s your warm-up ball, and the round officially starts after the next swing from the tee. 

Match Play “Blindness” 

Anyone who’s ever played a casual match knows the feeling. Your opponent does something against the rules, and you want to say something, but you figure it’s better to keep quiet and maintain the “peace”. Heck, it’s within the rules to pipe up and say something if your opponent leaves you at a disadvantage, just as it is to ignore their indiscretion. But, for some reason, the prevailing wisdom is for us to just clam up, take our lumps, stew silently over the decision for a few holes, and curse ourselves blue on the car ride home after we lose the match by one hole. As much as I’ve done exactly this a few times, it still baffles me as to why I do. Why does it make us “better people” to let someone get away with something rather than re-level the playing field? I don’t have an answer, do you? Stupid human nature… 

The “Gimme” 

No single act of kindness in golf has both helped golfers avoid the “yips”, while simultaneously magnifying their likelihood during tournament play. The gimme (a contraction of “give it to me” or “please don’t make me put that”) has been a part of the game since woods were made of wood and balls were filled with feathers. It’s that leftover putt that’s close enough to the hole that we’ll likely make the next one, so we just rake the ball away and count the next stroke as made. The historical measuring stick has been that any ball that lies “inside the leather” is good (the distance between the head of your putter and the bottom of the grip), but believe it or not, in the world handicap manual there’s actually a rule that, while not naming it as such, basically allows “gimmes”(!) Seriously. It’s called Most Likely Score, and under normal circumstances it’ll allow you to pick up your ball and count the next stroke within FIVE FEET of the hole. Crazy game… Even my regular group has a name for this, “The Circle of Friendship”. However, our distance varies from day to day, and mood to mood. And if the putt is for anything better than par, forget it, you’re not picking it up unless it’s overhanging the hole. 

As I said, these are just a few examples of “rules” that are woven into the fabric of golf, arguably as permanently as the actual rules themselves. What others have you come across or used? Feel free to share with me @lobwedge on Twitter. 

Stay safe and play well! 

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