Golf is divided by a common language

ONE of the best things about golf has always been the rich quality and diversity of its language and literature.

Course wit Dean Martin with Jerry Lewis. Picture: Chris Condon/PGA

There are so many wonderful names, phrases and quotes to be savoured. “Mashie niblick” (a modern-day 7-iron) springs to mind. So does the “Principal’s Nose”, the cluster of bunkers that so haunts the minds of every player standing on the 16th tee of the Old Course at St Andrews. And what other sport can boast such picturesquely titled venues as Gog Magog, Winged Foot and Barnbougle Dunes?

Little wonder then that the old adage “the smaller the ball the better the writing” is so true. The most gifted scribes with an affinity for golf – the likes of Bernard Darwin, Henry Longhurst, Dan Jenkins, Herbert Warren Wind, PG Wodehouse, Tom Callahan, Peter Dobereiner and Charlie Price – have had plenty of great material with which to work. Golfers have been known to come away with one or two good lines now and again.

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“They say golf is like life,” said former US Ryder Cup player Gardner Dickinson. “But don’t believe them. It’s far more complicated than that.”

“Golf is a game that is played on a five-inch course – the distance between your ears,” quipped the greatest amateur of all-time, Bobby Jones.

“If your opponent is playing several shots in vain attempts to extricate himself from a bunker, do not stand near him and audibly count his strokes,” advised six-time Open champion Harry Vardon. “It would be justifiable homicide if he wound up his pitiable exhibition by applying his niblick to your head.”

And one of my own favourites from crooner Dean Martin: “If you drink, don’t drive. Don’t even putt.”

Ah, but here’s the catch. Times they are a-changing. Led by the United States Golf Association, a rapidly growing constituency of apparently omniscient pedants has, on our collective behalf, decided to jettison long-established and perfectly sensible terminology. In their vastly superior view, it is no longer applicable in a game invented by, oh yes, we Scots.

Bit by bit, these arrogant so-and-sos are set on wrecking golf’s vibrant lexicon. It’s staggering really. They talk of “hole locations” instead of “pin positions”. “Playing partners” have suddenly become “fellow competitors”. And “3-woods” are long gone. These days we’re all out there brandishing “3-metals” even when – as they are for me – woods are still made of beautiful persimmon rather than tinny titanium.

You’ve got to laugh, even if any guffaws must necessarily be of the hollow variety. Especially when these stuffy and self-appointed guardians of the greatest game do seem to be employing a somewhat selective criterion. When it comes to deciding which of golf’s various definitions requires altering, consistency is clearly not their strong point. For example, these very same people erroneously call four-balls “foursomes”. And what real golfers call “foursomes”. they label “alternate shot”.

Ah-ha! Alternate shot, eh? Since we’re being all pompous and precise, “alternate shot” is not an entirely accurate description of foursomes play, mixed or otherwise. Think about it. Let’s say player “A” and player “B” are partners. “A” drives off at the first and the pair make a par-4. In other words, “B”, playing the even-numbered shots, holes out for the four. And, of course, he or she then drives off the second tee. In other words, hitting two consecutive shots for the team. Hence the inappropriateness of the word “alternate”. Stick that in your collective pipes and smoke it, USGA.

And there’s more. Perhaps worst of all, an albatross (a score of three under par on a hole) is, in USGA-speak, a “double eagle”. Given that an eagle is a score of two under par, how can twice that be three under? Don’t they teach basic arithmetic at those pretentious Ivy League schools? You know, the sorts of establishments to which the parents of J Wally Hamburger III send privileged little boys and girls?

I mean, just who do these people think they are? And where is this nonsense headed? I’ll tell you. If this sort of thing is left unchecked by those of us quite happy with the way things were before golf’s thought-police began enlisting recruits, here is the sort of “commentary” we can presumably expect during future US Open Championships. The event, of course, that is nearest and dearest to the star-spangled hearts of every blue-blooded and blazered USGA official: “Welcome to Winged Valley. A welcome is a greeting from one person to another when the latter arrives at a place where the former is already present.

“Winged Valley is the golf course where this year the US Open Championship will be held. The US Open Championship is the national championship of the United States. The United States is a collection of 50 separate territories that first came into being in 1776. 1776 was 242 years ago.

“Anyway, we have here this week our annual gathering of 156 elite golfers. Golfers are those people who hit small balls around big fields using as many as 14 sticks. There are typically 18 holes in the big field and each golfer must hit his ball into each one of the holes. He must perform this onerous task for four consecutive days. The man who hits his ball the least number of times wins the big silver trophy that does not have a name. Exactly why it does not have a name is not clear to us or anyone else.

“We at the United States Golf Association – which is the ruling body for the game in both the United States of America and Mexico – routinely choose to cover our big field with as much long grass as we can get away with. We like long grass because it makes it more difficult for the golfers to hit their small balls into the 18 holes. We like the game to be difficult and, it must be said, as boring and tedious as possible. What we do not want is excitement – or golfers who use imagination and flair. We much prefer pragmatism and complete lack of artistry. Ideally, we want every single golfer to hit exactly the same shot every time. Variety is so unwelcome.”

I could go on. And on and on. But you get the picture. Which is more than can be said for the US television networks and their golf coverage. Sadly, the likes of ESPN, NBC, CBS and the Golf Channel seem to have bought into this USGA-inspired gibberish. Peter Oosterhuis, an Englishman I’m willing to bet used the phrases “pin position” and “fairway woods” throughout his long and distinguished playing career, is particularly afflicted. The four-time European No.1 dutifully churns out “hole locations” and “3-metals” like a man possessed. So does former Ryder Cup player David Feherty, who used to be Irish but now masquerades as a Texan.

What is especially irksome is that “pin position” is so much more accurate and understandable than its wannabe grandiose replacement. Unless there has been major reconstruction on a course, it seems to me that all 18 holes stay in pretty much the same place. If anything does move, it is the cups on the greens. And what do we find in the cups? That’s right: pins.