Rules and Those Who Make Them

In addition to being Father’s Day, today is the last day of the United States Open Golf Championship. That is not a coincidence. It always is.

The golf we Americans see on television as we nod off on Sunday afternoons is produced by four groups. The Professional Golf Association Tour (PGA Tour) runs the pro tour and manages the overwhelming majority of events. The Augusta National Golf Club runs the Masters, which is technically an invitational so the event and its television rights belong to them. The Professional Golf Association, which represents the teaching pros, runs the PGA Championship and the United States Golf Association (USGA), an organization focused mostly on amateurs, controls the U.S. Open.

The Masters has protocols or customs that are essentially rules. Violate them at your peril. A “requirement” to refer to the fans as patrons might be a little stuffy, but it is in the shoulder-shrug category. Misogynistic practices relating to women golfers are less so.

The USGA also has a custom that distinguishes it from other events. The golf course will be the toughest that it can be made to be.

The fairways will be several yards narrower than the pros are used to seeing week in and week out. The rough will be higher and, if possible, more tangly. The greens will be like wavy sheets of glass to make approaching and putting even more difficult than they usually are.

Essentially, these are the “rules” for the event and the players have to accept them if they want to play. Clearly, this does not present a problem as pretty much all of the best players in the world choose to do so, if they can qualify.

Are you expecting a “but?” If so, here it is.

The “rule” of the U.S. Open Championship that tries to make it as difficult as possible violates the most basic tenet of good rulemaking.

Good rules apply to those who make them as well as to those against whom they are enforced. In fact, this question alone provides a pretty good start to determining whether a rule is good or not.

The great and the good in their USGA ties and blazers who will present the trophy this afternoon are not remotely good enough to play in this event. If their home courses were set up like their championship course, the popularity of the game would plummet, as solid players posted dreadful ego-shattering scores.

Essentially, the USGA officials have created a contest between lions and gladiators with the course playing the role of lion and the players the role of gladiator. The television spectators stave off slumber as they await the carnage.

To be clear, I haven’t the smallest objection to making the U.S. Open the most challenging tournament of the year. It is far more interesting than the January Hawaii farces where the winner finishes four rounds 25 under par. But I do pause at the thought of rule makers creating requirements for others but not for themselves.

The two champions of this practice are parents (do as I say not as I do) and the United States Congress, which routinely exempts its members from rules that apply to the rest of us.

Might rules be less arbitrary if those in authority had to consider living under them?

I suspect there would be less rule making for appearance’s sake if the governed demanded that the rule makers live under the regime they created.  “We have to have a rule like so-and-so to show who we are as Americans.”

Rules for appearance’s sake tend not to have been thought through as carefully, but by then, they have become sacred text and are difficult to change no matter how bad they turn out to be. The rule makers have checked the public relations box and moved on. We live with the consequences.

I think about rules quite often, mostly because I chafe at arbitrary authority. I plan to write more about this idea and I welcome any thoughts on the topic.

Note: please don’t confuse this story with a commentary on the rules of golf generally. Those are idiotic and could be the subject of many future stories, but at least they apply to those who made them.

24 Responses to “Rules and Those Who Make Them”

Stephen Sears, June 20, 2021 at 10:41 am said:

This is very thoughtful, well-reasoned and a well-written take on the matter. Thanks for publishing this, and I hope you have a great Father’s Day!

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Haven Pell, June 20, 2021 at 10:56 am said:

Thanks Stephen. An excellent father’s Day to you too and, of course, International Tennis Day commemorating the Serment du Jeu de Paume on June 20, 1789.

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Garrard Glenn, June 20, 2021 at 11:22 am said:

With regards to the U.S. Open, it seems to me the net result of its unusual difficulty places particular and extraordinary emphasis on the short games of the players. Even the best drivers are going to hit occasional drives into the rough, as the fairways are so narrow. And, the rough is particularly thick and tall.
Carving a shot out of that rough to the green or back to a fairway is a unique challenge at the U.S. Open. And often as a result greens are missed, and short shots around the green must be relied upon to get “up and down” for par. This is particularly challenging
if the short shot must be taken out of the thick greenside rough. Thus the U.S. Open is often won by players who can best master these unique challenges.
Is that a good thing, or a bad thing? I would say bad. The Masters tournament has no appreciable rough, and yet produces ample challenges around the greens that require deft, subtle shots, instead of the wild hacks that are often required at the U.S. Open to exit the tangly, jungly rough.

The U.S. Open presents a unique challenge. But just because something is made harder doesn’t make it more interesting, or even fair.

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Haven Pell, June 20, 2021 at 12:44 pm said:

You raise an issue for another story. What has the word “fair” come to mean. Seems to me it has become a synonym for “the outcome I prefer.” I am not a huge fan of Bryson deChambeau, the slugger who hits every shot miles and wild. It would seem entirely fair to me if the rough where his ball often lands was populated with carnivorous predators. More to come on that word to be sure.

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Garrard Glenn, June 20, 2021 at 2:23 pm said:

DeChambeau is himself a carnivorous predator, and might be inclined to snack on the smaller predators he finds in the rough.

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Haven Pell, June 21, 2021 at 8:37 am said:

He could have used some of his 44 shots on the back nine to kill a predator or two.

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Peter W. Bragdon, June 20, 2021 at 11:33 am said:

Great image, Haven: “lions and gladiators.”

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Haven Pell, June 20, 2021 at 12:40 pm said:

Poor Rory McIlroy preferred a penalty stroke to an encounter with a rattlesnake

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John A. Murphy, June 20, 2021 at 11:50 am said:

“It is good to obey all the rules when you’re young so that you will have the strength to break them when you’re old.” Samuel Clemens.

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rick spellman, June 20, 2021 at 12:53 pm said:

My 170 yard shot used to be a 4 or 5 iron, but now it’s both of them.

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Haven Pell, June 21, 2021 at 8:38 am said:

I quoted this line at a club fitting yesterday. Give an 8-wood or a 9-wood a try. They are really fun to hit.

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charley mayheson, June 20, 2021 at 7:39 pm said:

As I watch this brutal game I have not yet seen a well earned tantrum. Face it this course is not a test of skill but a hard measure of luck. Close your eyes……oh sorry the announcer just said it was the easiest hole in open history. Rahm hitting out of the sand for the umpteenth time nope he made a bird.

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Haven Pell, June 21, 2021 at 8:36 am said:

In the end, the number two ranked golfer in the world did win it so perhaps it wasn’t all luck.

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Sellers, June 20, 2021 at 9:57 pm said:

In a world where everything is trivialized, “dumbed down” or politicized, I welcome a really difficult competition. Aside from the rattlesnakes, that is. Somehow it seems that really good golfers always win.

When I saw the title of this article I thought perhaps you had become a Libertarian, a move I personally would cheer, but I suppose that remains to be seen.

Looking forward to seeing where this line of query takes you.

Happy Father’s Day.

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Temple Grassi, June 21, 2021 at 7:30 am said:

Watching The US Open yesterday was like watching NASCAR- we were waiting for a ‘wreck or wrecks’ and get them we did!! It made a high handicapper such as I feel good as these pros hit shots as badly as I do ( Every now and then ‘we’ hit a good one-that’s why we come back). To wit, that ball that stayed up in the tree ,DeChambeau getting a ‘snowman’ not to mention his dispute with Koepka -great theater!
As for rules, it will be interesting to see as the ‘coat and tie’ set die off what will the next generation enforce! As TV spectators , now it’s on to Wimbledon and ‘all whites’ – where you play-what is your dress code? Are you getting pickleball, padel, or even court tennis!

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Haven Pell, June 21, 2021 at 8:33 am said:

The Sunday final round certainly followed the predictions written on Sunday morning. Some will like the outcome; others will not. All will be back to watch next year.

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Malcolm Marshall, June 21, 2021 at 12:09 pm said:

Years ago when Lee Trevino was asked what he wanted to do upon retiring from the tour said: “I will get a blazer, have dandruff on the lapels and become a USGA rules official.” Yesterday a rules official came dangerously close to providing a full plumber’s crack for the home audience.

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Haven Pell, June 21, 2021 at 12:23 pm said:

I liked the scene with everyone searching for the ball in the tree.

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Haven Pell, June 21, 2021 at 8:30 am said:

Now that I have been properly corrected on the spelling of “chafe,” I can use the word to underscore my reaction to rules. Spelling rules are fine; dumb rules — especially if made for PR purposes — seem less so.

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Michael Foster, June 21, 2021 at 8:32 am said:

Excellent observations on the state of golf and the US Open, but also on rules. As our nation and re-opens post pandemic to new rules yet to be written, I hope we all heed your advice and write them so all can live with them together.

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Haven Pell, June 21, 2021 at 8:49 am said:

and perhaps even leave some unwritten so that people can make their own decisions

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Ned Batchelor, June 22, 2021 at 11:44 pm said:

Interesting point of view. And yet, I don’t recall hearing of any of the golfers complaining that Torrey Pines was an unfair test of golf. There have been occasions where the weather has crossed up the people setting up the Open course and it has gotten away from them. In this regard, the Open at Shinnecock Hills in 2004 comes to mind. But in general, I think the USGA strives to make a demanding, but fair contest. Their mantra is that they seek not to embarrass the best golfers, but to reveal them.
I also think that you are being unduly harsh in criticizing the executives who run the USGA. I think they all love and respect the game. The long time CEO of the USGA, Mike Davis, may not have won a U.S. Open, but he certainly was competent enough to have competed in one. He was a state junior champion and also played in several national amateur championships. Most sports are run by individuals who are not able to play at the same level as the players actually playing, but this doesn’t mean that they are unqualified to establish and enforce rules.

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Haven Pell, June 23, 2021 at 10:07 am said:

Ned, I agree with the points you make. I had hoped that “To be clear, I haven’t the smallest objection to making the U.S. Open the most challenging tournament of the year” would have alleviated the need to make them. There was a high correlation between the top golfer ranking and the top 20 in the last US Open. QED. I have thought about rules and rule making for decades. I might have begun doing so as a member of the governing body of a game that I could not play nearly as well as others. If every course were set up like Torrey Pines, the amateur players would quit in droves. It would just be too hard. But the pros are so good that only a very few course in the country provide a test for them. I still believe that a good test of rule making is, “does the rule apply to the ones who made it.” Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts and contribute to the discussion.

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