It’s spring, and an old man’s fancy turns to thoughts of golf.  My thoughts concentrate on three conditions that no longer seem to exist, neither in golf nor in the society.  Golf, as the game was designed and expected to be played, is out of sync, out of joint, with the society determined to paralyze the game.

The first rule and regulation of golf is that the game has neither referee, umpire, nor official arbiter.  Each individual golfer is obliged to call all penalties and/or violations on herself or himself.  Golf is the only game I know in which this condition operates.  Any infringement is dealt with on the honor system.  Such a design requires that each individual player be thoroughly familiar with all the rules and regulations which govern playing the game.  The player must be knowledgeable.

In tournament play, officials are assigned who may pass judgment about a questionable situation and to whom participants can appeal.  However, the ordinary player, whether weekend or daily or a tournament participant, is expected to call on himself or herself any breach of regulations.  Accepting that responsibility of rules and regulations, the standards of the game, the knowledge of the rules, and the honor system are the price a golfer pays for the luxury of playing the game that golfers love.

The second most serious aspect of golf is consideration.  The principle of consideration to provide safety, protection, and fairness for the players.  For example, if a golfer hits a ball into a sandtrap, that player is expected to consider the golfer playing behind him or her; therefore, when he or she has completed the sandshot, that player will use the rake provided by the grounds personnel to smooth out the footprints and any other unnatural obstacles to a fair lie that may have resulted from the ball going into the trap.  Every golfer protects fellow players from suffering unnatural handicaps created by other players.

All players are protected against penalties and hazards inflicted by other players.  That protection comes from the principle of consideration.  Since golfers are not permitted to touch the ball once it is in play (except under designated circumstances), if a golfer hits the ball into a sandtrap which has not been properly raked, that player could suffer an undue burden because of a predecessor’s inconsideration.

A similar condition exists with fairway divots.  Golfers who understand the principle of consideration as fundamental to the success and pleasure of the game always replace divots caused by striking the ground on which the ball lay.  That action is expected specifically for the protection of the grass and for the protection of the players who will follow the last shot maker.

Golfers know that in order to consider the next golfer, one must not only replace the fairway divots and rake the sandtraps but also remove ball marks on the green.  This latter action insures the next player of a just chance to make a putt on a clear, clean, unhampered, and true green.  Again, players are protected from the hardships that can be created by other players.

Golfers are expected to deal only with the hardships created by the design of the course, the nature of the game, and the physical nature which plays such an important role in both the aesthetics of the sport and the playing of the game.

The third significant thought, vital to the game, is courtesy.  The game can operate successfully only if the players recognize, honor, and respect courteous behavior.  No golfer will make a noise or any sound which might distract another player hitting the ball.  Nor will any golfer do anything that might hinder another player’s concentration on that player’s shot.

Golfers who know the game and honor the fundamentals of the game recognize the common sense inherent in the principle of courteous behavior.  One golfer will hold the flag for another player (caddies will exercise this courtesy; but when no caddies are present, individual players will provide the courtesy for their companions) in order to facilitate another player’s shot and to provide an appropriate target.

The player furthest from the hole will always hit first, both to protect all the other players from possible injury (a condition possible only if one walks ahead of the person striking the ball!), and for giving the person with the greatest momentary handicap the courtesy of striking first.  When one scores lowest on a hole, that person is given the courtesy of hitting first on the next tee as honor for skillfully handling the last test.

One does not run ahead of others, one does not disturb others, one does not place any handicap in the paths of others.  To speed up the game, golfers on a par three green are expected to wave on the next group waiting on the tee as a means of moving a little more quickly the population on the golf course.

For sixty years now I have pleasured these dynamics on the golf course, and they have spilled over into my life and into the lives of our three sons, all of whom treasure the game.  Recently I encountered a contradiction of that spill-over.  I took the subway at 116th and Broadway downtown to Times Square.  At 96th Street, a lady, considerably younger than I, got onto the subway car with some packages.  I got up and offered her my seat.  She accepted, and then said, “Thanks, Sucker!”

Rules and regulations; individual responsibility for dealing with one’s own transgressions, consideration for other people, places, and things; common courtesy in order to enhance the quality of one’s life; all seem extinct now.  Golf is not extinct, but the way people play on courses today makes one realize how the society’s values and behavior have infiltrated the game and rendered inoperable the very fundamentals on which the game was founded.

Golf seems to me the ultimate demonstration of the very best in the human spirit.  Its dynamics plus its joy in the aesthetics of Nature, its splendid spirit of freedom, make a springtime worth receiving.  But a society which replaces knowledge with information, principles with strategies, courtesy with fashion is a doomed society.  Courtesy is what golfers consider appropriate, normal, behavior.  Courtesy recognizes and respects another human being, every human being.  My golf thoughts this morning extend to Mr. Jefferson and his words:

If a nation expects to be ignorant and free,
in a state of civilization,
it expects what never was and never will be.


  1. Thank you for this outstanding lesson, Howard! I was never exposed to golf growing up and I certainly feel the loss of it in my life as a man. I will always remember the story you told me about your son and “muscle memory” and golf. The teaching stays within me forever!

  2. Howard,

    I was oblivious that golf was such a disciplined sport! At Peddie I played some golf — wish I knew all this back then! Great article!

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