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A quest for common sense in an uncommonly obtuse Rules of Golf

By John Gordon

Like many of you, I’ve long been a fan of TV’s “The Big Bang Theory.” And I never thought I would come across anything that rivaled the impenetrability and complexity of the Roommate Agreement forged by Sheldon Cooper (played by actor Jim Parsons) to befuddle and perplex his friend Leonard Hofstadter (Johnny Galecki). To wit: Section 74C (Hofstadter must assist Cooper if he ever becomes a robot). Section 8, Subsection C, Paragraph 4 (coitus). The nebulous, yet ever-popular, Unnamed Addendum. And on and on.

I never thought I would, that is, until I signed up for a Rules of Golf certification course this winter.

And with the same bad timing that afflicts my golf swing, I began taking this course at approximately the same time that the announcement was made that sweeping changes were on the way.  The entire frigging rules book was being dissected. 

“Nothing was sacred,” John Bodenhamer, the U.S. Golf Association’s senior managing director of rules, competitions and equipment standards, told Golf Digest. “Everything was on the table. Every aspect of the rules, from the content to how they’re delivered, to how they’re written, to what they look like in writing, is all going to be different.”

Before you get super excited, remember that it took three years for the ban on anchored strokes to go from proposal to reality. So even though the first of these latest proposed changes will be revealed next month, it will take at least a couple of more years for them to be circulated for feedback to stakeholders, including the various professional tours. Most likely, the first wave will become official in the next scheduled rules update, in 2020.

While kudos go to the USGA and R&A for this initiative, golf’s governing bodies also should be dinged at least two figurative strokes for the glacial pace of change regarding the bloated rules book. And let’s not even mention its morbidly obese companion volume, the 752-page Decisions on the Rules of Golf. What’s been the holdup?

Jeffrey Kuhn is the co-author with fellow Texas lawyer Bryan Garner of The Rules of Golf in Plain English. Kuhn, a longtime rules official who has achieved the highest rating at PGA and USGA rules workshops, has officiated at numerous USGA championships, including the U.S. Open. Garner is president of LawProse, distinguished research professor of law at Southern Methodist University and the author of books including Legal Writing in Plain English as well as being editor-in-chief of Black’s Law Dictionary. You can’t question those credentials.

The first edition of the Kuhn-Garner book was published in 2004 with the endorsement of the USGA. Former USGA executive director David Fay championed the project through some stiff political opposition, Kuhn says, and called it “clear, useful and authoritative.” (The fourth volume was published in 2016 and is available online.)

Even as a rules aficionado and a lawyer, Kuhn says he struggled to understand some of the more obtuse sections of the Rules of Golf

“I couldn’t believe anyone could possibly believe that the average golfer would pick that book up and actually read and understand it,” Kuhn said. So, with the editorial assistance of Garner, he rewrote every rule into a much more understandable and logical fashion.

“The irony is that golf is very proud that it is self-policing and we don’t need officials blowing whistles or throwing flags and that it’s the honor of the players that makes the game what it is,” Kuhn said, “but we have a rule book no one wants to read.”

So, if the first edition of The Rules of Golf in Plain English came out 13 years ago, why didn’t the USGA and R&A ask Kuhn at that time to help make the rules accessible and understandable to the average golfer? Could it be, as Voltaire said, that common sense is not so common?

Or perhaps, the governing bodies are a mite overprotective of their historical fiefdom? Were they a touch fearful that someone could usurp their power, spreading it to the great unwashed?

You decide.

But before you do, consider this anecdote from Sheldon Cooper: “In Papua New Guinea, there’s a tribe that when a hunter flaunts his success to the rest of the village, they kill him and drive away evil spirits with a drum made of his skin. Superstitious nonsense, of course, but one can see their point.”

John Gordon, who has covered golf for more than 30 years for Canadian newspapers, magazines and a TV network, has authored eight books on the game. He lives in Midland, Ontario. Email:  gordongolf@outlook.com.  Twitter: @gordongolf.