Final Word: Lies, Damned Lies

Dear Lord, please save us golfers from ourselves. If you could only see Your way to amending Commandment Nine…




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illustration by Gilbert Ford


I once played golf with a fellow golf writer (there’s a hint that this story is not about integrity) who had made no secret of his single-digit handicap.

When our round began, I could see nothing off the tee or from the fairway that would suggest the skill of an accomplished player. On the greens, though, I watched him routinely rake 8- and 10-foot putts as “pickups” and “gimmees.”

The USGA has tried to level the playing field with both its Rules of Golf and the USGA Handicap System—golf’s answers to the U.S. Penal Code and the Americans with Disabilities Act. But in the same manner that our prisons are full to bursting and handicap parking spaces are routinely abused by the able-bodied, the Rules of Golf and the handicap system are subject to similar violations and abuses.

Consider the typical golf association team event. There is always a team in the fourth or fifth flight (usually reserved for those who struggle to break 100) that miraculously shoots about 18 under. Willie Sutton robbed banks because “that’s where the money is.” Presumed 25-handicappers who are suddenly striping 260-yard drives and bombing putts from 35 feet have applied Sutton’s principles of finance to their handicaps. That’s when you realize that the best use for most handicaps would be to bag them, then pile them up to prevent flooding.

I don’t think most of us start out being deceitful. It’s more our perception of where we should be in skill level based on the thousands we’ve sunk into equipment, lessons, videos, magazines, self-help books, hypnosis, psychotherapy, pilgrimages to Tibet, and a commitment to simulation and gadgetry that only a NASA astronaut would appreciate. Given all that, it can’t possibly be us making all those terrible swings and putts. It must be course conditions.

The USGA understands this, thus it has evolved an elegant mathematical system that takes into account the various vagaries that we feel are at the root of our sub-par performance.

Rating and Slope represent the great curve in grading our performance on any given course. But we know that Rating and Slope alone can’t account for all the adverse conditions we may face (wind, cold, rain, an inattentive beverage cart girl), so we occasionally resort to a shorthand rating and slope of our own to more fairly represent how we should be playing. These include: first tee mulligans, practice putting on the green, preferred lies, random declarations of “ground under repair,” and expanded definitions of objects that qualify as movable or temporary (such as a car parked on the clubhouse lot with the keys inside).

What the USGA nobly attempts with course calibrations is what God Himself strives for with the Ten Commandments. Which may explain why many see golf as a secular religion.

How many times is God (or his Son, for that matter) invoked on a golf course? Don’t we beg the ball for the (generally brief) time it’s airborne to perform in opposition to the laws of gravity, propulsion and vector physics—asking for a miracle, in essence—the same way we ask our Creator to help us find our car keys in return for promising never to violate any of the commandments again, with the exception of No. 3 (during any round), Nos. 8 or 9 (during the club championship) or No. 6 (upon having lost the club championship due to Nos. 8 or 9 being used against you by the eventual winner). (Note: King James Bible version of the Decalogue.)

In a big way, golf is like attending religious services: We go to extol the image of the type of person we’d like to be while privately begging indulgence for the type of person we really are. 



Reid Champagne is known for his judicious application of the “foot wedge” on courses across the state.

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