NORTON — Golf on the PGA Tour is a game of power, precision, coordination, innovation, strength, skill, and occasionally stamina, among many other things.
It is not a contact sport, however, between its players. At least most of the time.
Jerry Kelly has a story, though. As a PGA Tour rookie, he lowered his shoulder and let playing partner Mac O’Grady have it while on the green. The problem? A few of golf’s unwritten rules.
Let Kelly explain.
“I’m a rookie, playing in Milwaukee with Jim Thorpe and Mac O’Grady. Those guys are on the green, about 30 feet away on opposite sides, and I’m about 40 feet away. I knock my putt up there and tap it in. As I reach and get my ball out of the hole I step over the hole, instead of walking around. Mac makes a beeline to me, comes right up to my shoulder and says, ‘Don’t ever walk over that hole, don’t ever do that,’ ” Kelly said. “I’m a little bit of an aggressive guy, and I take a little bit of offense to that. About three holes later, I’m looking at my putt from behind the hole, Mac’s on the other side, and I see that he’s going to walk over my line.
“Well, if I can’t walk over the hole, he can’t walk over my line. So I start walking toward him, he’s coming toward me, and I absolutely hammer him in the shoulder, then keep walking. I got him pretty good. Thorpy was laughing his [butt] off. I loved Mac’s eccentricities, he’s a good guy. I knew that you never step over somebody’s line, but I learned that day that you’re not supposed to step over the hole.”
Every sport played at the highest level has its unwritten rules, a participatory code to follow. Golf is no different. Some you might know. Most you might not. But if you’re headed to this week’s Deutsche Bank Championship, held at TPC Boston, see if you can spot these. PGA Tour players will be expected to act much differently than regular golfers out for a leisurely round. Careers are at stake, so professional golfers owe it to their peers to behave a certain way.
By and large, unwritten rules are grounded in respect.
“It’s mostly etiquette-based, always putting the fellow player above yourself,” said Stewart Cink.
Perhaps the most visible unwritten rule is found on the green, when players observe the “through-line.” It works like this: When grouped with other players, assume they will run their putts past the hole. Make sure, then, not to walk directly behind the hole, in what might soon become another player’s line.
Not all tour players were aware of the through-line.
“My rookie year I didn’t know about the through-line, at all,” said Charles Howell. “In college golf we never paid attention to that whatsoever. A player told me about it. It was Nick Price, actually. He didn’t get on me, but he just said, ‘Hey, you need to watch this.’ ”
Watching is vital to following many of golf’s unwritten rules, because they rely on a player knowing when another player is in the process of executing a shot. When he is, especially on tee boxes and greens, two important unwritten rules apply: Stand still, and stand where you’re supposed to stand. Where’s that? Pretty much anywhere a player can’t see you, because his line of sight should never be encroached.
“I was lucky, because when I grew up I used to play in a money game with a bunch of older guys that were pretty tough, so I feel like they were a lot harder on me than anybody out here has ever been,” said Bo Van Pelt. “I was on the first green one day and I stood where I shouldn’t have been standing, and I got lit up pretty good. I’ve never forgotten it, even though it was probably 27 years ago, when I was 11 or 12.”
Players aren’t allowed to ask one another for advice or what club was used for a shot. But there are acceptable ways around that, especially on par 3s. It’s OK, even expected, for a player or caddie to peek into another player’s bag, to see what club is being used. And if a player doesn’t want you peeking, he’ll drape a towel over the clubs so you can’t see.
Playing out of turn is usually a no-no. But under the right circumstances, an unwritten rule allows for it. Again, based on etiquette.
“If a guy’s having a tough hole, if he’s taken a drop or if he’s bladed one, I might think it’s the right thing to do, so I’ll ask, ‘Hey, do you want me to go? I’m ready, if you want to take a break,’ ” said Van Pelt. “To me, it helps me out, because maybe I’ve been waiting long, and I want to stay in my rhythm. Plus, he’s just hit two or three shots, he’s probably not feeling great about things, so take a minute and reset the board a little.”
Another time when playing out of turn is acceptable? On the green. If a player whose ball is not yet on the green is closer to the hole than someone who is already on the putting surface, frequently the player who is closer to the hole will play first. Once everyone is on the green, it reverts to farthest away plays first.
Unwritten rules on the PGA Tour aren’t limited to the course. Players can be upset immediately after a round, perhaps a bad finish costing them a cut made. But the scoring trailer is not the place to explode.
“In the scoring trailer, the unwritten rule is to always act like a pro,” said Van Pelt. “We’ve all bogeyed the last hole to miss the cut and you’re ticked off and not happy, but maybe the guys you’re playing with are playing well, and that scorekeeper in there didn’t have anything to do with you not playing well.
“I’ve seen guys act like they’re in the third grade and got their candy taken away. Wait until you get in the locker room, wait until you get in the car, the hotel. I don’t think there’s any place for that in there. Have a little respect.”
Ultimately, that’s the word that drives the rulebook. Respect for the opponent, respect for the course, respect for the sport.
“We’re entertainers, and most of the fans come out here to watch us play, and all they know is that they’re going to watch me hit a shot on this hole, and they don’t know if I’m 6 under or 6 over,” Cink said. “All they want to do is see me play, see me hit this shot to the best of my ability. They don’t want to see me hurry up and look like I don’t care. That’s disrespectful.”