Fun With Golf Rules (No, Seriously)
One of the great things about being a Sports Fan is the delight that arises from the most innocuous things encountered at a sporting event. Then again, I’m admittedly easily amused. Why don’t I tell you a story about my new favorite golfer, and you draw your own conclusions.
Yesterday I ventured into the hills east of downtown San Diego until I came upon Carlton Oaks Golf Course in Santee – the site of the Southwest Regional of the NCAA Men’s Golf Championship. One of the six regional sites that define the participants in next month’s national championship tournament, the conventional wisdom about this region was that it was the weakest of the six with regard to team strength, but the best in terms of individual invitees – the players whose teams did not qualify for the tournament, but whose strong individual performance throughout the year warranted inclusion in the chase for national golf supremacy. In fact, four players here on their own were within the top 85 in the country: Nate Barbee of Kansas (60), Zack Fischer of Texas-Arlington (65), Scott Travers of Santa Clara (83), and Tom Whitney (85).
One of the things that I noticed after a couple of hours of bopping around the course from group to group was that these players flying solo seemed to have more of a spring in their step and an overall “happy to be here” countenance than that of the players who were competing as part of a team. Each threesome on the course was made up of one player from each of three different teams – or in the case of the last five groups off the tee, two individual qualifiers and a member of the Oral Roberts University team, the lowest seed. There was noticeably more interaction between the players in these last five groups. In town on their own (albeit with a coach), these golfers seemed a little bit more interested in reaching out to their fellow lone soldiers. In contrast, for the players here with teams, the five hours spent on the course with two other strangers appeared to be more of a necessary evil in between time spent with their teammates. So as someone who is drawn to athletes that appear to be having the most fun, I found myself spending increasingly more time following the pairings featuring the ten individual invitees.
Of these intrepid souls, one player stood out in particular – Nick Delio of Cal State-Northridge. My first glance at Delio made me think that he was on loan from the football team, except for the small detail that CS-N doesn’t actually field a football team. Bearing the physique and take-no-prisoners style of play of a linebacker, Delio didn’t just swing at the golf ball – he assaulted it. But it was his mental game that grabbed my attention. Here’s why:
The 12th hole at Carlton Oaks is one of those nasty little par 3’s that make you want to track down the course designer and TP his house. The green is bordered by water on the right and a sand bunker surrounded by heavy rough on the left. And of course the entire area is slanted such that everything runs downhill toward the water. On this day the flag was located perilously close to the water, causing almost every player to instinctively pull their tee shot and miss the green to the left. This left them with a slippery downhill shot onto a green that sloped away from them. Had it been me playing that shot, I would have surreptitiously paid a couple of bystanders to lie down in between the green and the water and then caused a scene later on in the scorer’s tent.
As later recreated in this picture by yours truly, this is what Nick Delio was facing when his tee shot came to a rest, nestled down into the rough. Above the hole, ball sitting down, and nothing but water beyond the pin. It was no surprise then that his shot came out a little hot – and indeed it rolled all the way across the green and into the pond beyond. I winced in empathy. But it was what Delio did next that impressed me.
The Rules of Golf, originally written by sadists and updated through the years by an assorted group of pathological sociopaths called the USGA, offer several options to the player facing Delio’s current water-logged situation. He was technically allowed to do one of the following:
• Play his shot out of the water hazard – in this case, not realistic considering the noticeable lack of SCUBA gear in his golf bag.
• Take a penalty stroke and drop a ball within two club lengths of where the ball last went skinny-dipping – but no closer to the hole. Again, in this case not an option, since virtually any point that Delio could’ve picked to legally drop the ball would have been closer to the hole than the point at which the ball went into the water.
• Take a penalty stroke and hit another shot from the same spot.
Those of us watching immediately felt a reflexive kick to the golf groin, for at first glance it looked like he was going to have to replay the same wickedly difficult shot – with a pretty good chance of the same results. Were it me, with the pressure of being two-thirds of the way into the most important tournament of the year… I would’ve assumed a mental fetal position, dropped a ball in the same spot from which I’d just rinsed a shot, and texted The Bird to cue up on the DVD player the scene in Tin Cup where Kevin Costner hits one shot after another after another into the water. So what did Delio do?
Buried deep within the Rules of Golf, in a spot where the average golfer’s attention span severely limits their ability to travel, lies another option that every once in a great while becomes applicable: You can take a penalty stroke and drop a ball on the other side of the water hazard, going as far back as you want, as long as you keep the spot where the ball went in the water between you and the hole. In this particular case, the inviting short grass of an adjoining fairway beckoned from the other side of the pond. And better yet, by hitting a shot from there, Delio would be looking at one big green backstop of a slope on which to land his ball and let gravity do its trick. It took him less than 10 seconds to figure that out, and when I saw him ask a rules official for a ride to the other side of the pond, it was like watching a neat plot twist in a movie reveal itself. “Of course – brilliant!” I said to no one in particular, with all of the expertise and conviction that hindsight provides.
Sure enough, Delio dropped in the far fairway, hit a gorgeous approach shot off of a perfect lie, and returned around the pond to calmly sink the putt. A potentially round-ruining hole had been turned into a mere scorecard annoyance. As he passed by me on the way to the next tee, I complimented him on his quick thinking and knowledge of the rules, and in response I got an “Aw shucks” grin and a sincere “Thank you”.
Nick Delio finished the day with a 71, good enough to tie him for fourth place among the 75 golfers in the field. So I ask you: What Sports Fan in their right mind wouldn’t be committed to tracking his progress for as long as he plays competitively?