Awkward Moments

By The Editors Photos by Eric Tucker
June 25, 2007

Golf is a complicated game. It's governed by a seemingly endless list of mysterious rules, rituals and other etiquette niceties, some written down and some not, because in four-plus hours, over varied terrain, in an often highly charged, competitive atmosphere, all kinds of weird stuff happens. Sometimes it seems like hitting the ball is the easy part—it's dealing with all that messy humanity that poses the problems. What follows are various tricky situations—all of which have personally happened to us, or we have perpetrated, or been witness to, or heard about—and our suggestions for how to tackle them.


From then on, you play like a man inspired. You pound it miles down every fairway, hit daring approach shots to tucked pins and drain every putt. Your boss has stopped with the business seminar and is concentrating hard, but the harder he tries, the worse he plays. You're killing him, and now he's getting mad. He's 4 down with five to play.

What do you do next?

Bury the guy. Show no mercy. Put him away. Nobody likes a loser. But make sure you win with grace (being a good winner is just as important as being a good loser). No fist-pumping. Thank him for the game and tell him you got lucky. When you get back to the office—assuming you still have a job—no public bragging. (You want to be invited back for a rematch, right?) But yeah, play hard, always. Anything else is an insult to your opponents—and to yourself. Golf is war. Never forget that.


What do you do next?

This happened at a club we know, on the 18th fairway, almost within earshot of the clubhouse. The cheater was called back to his original ball by the other guys in his group. "Come and look at this," they said. When he reached them, without saying a word, they simply pointed at his ball. The guy turned white—he knew that they knew. Word got around. He became a bit of a pariah after that and for months would rarely show his face in the clubhouse. Sometimes he would park at the far end of the course and play a few holes on his own in the evenings. That summer his hair turned gray, then white. Eventually he quit the game.

Friendly match? No such thing if cheaters are involved. Cheating is the wood worm in the foundations that civilization is built on, and it must be quashed. We like the story of the British sportswriter Leonard Crawley, a fine amateur golfer and cricketer between the wars (he played in the 1932 Walker Cup). Playing with a cheat one day, Crawley remained silent throughout the fellow's many transgressions on the golf course. But when they got back to the locker room, he decked the guy, picked him up, gave him a talking to, then bought him a drink. We can't advocate physical violence, of course. But we do recommend confronting the cheat. Call him over to his ball and make it clear that you know what he's up to. "Pick it up," you tell him. "You're out of this hole. And don't ever do that again." Then give him your best Robert De Niro "I'll be watching you, Focker" impersonation from "Meet the Parents."


What do you do next?

Hitting a foozle off the first tee is one of the greatest fears known to humankind, along with snakes, public speaking and going on a hunting trip with Dick Cheney. But the fact is, it has happened to everyone who has ever played the game. Over the years, we've seen many of the best golfers in the world hit terrible, hugely embarrassing duffs in front of thousands of people (and sometimes TV cameras, too).

Prevention is better than cure. Learn to play with pressure by competing in tournaments, making money bets with your pals, entering a pro-am and playing with good players. On any big day, get to the course early, warm up and hit some balls on the range. On the first tee, expect to be nervous. Being nervous will not result in a bad shot—it should actually help you—but being anxious and tense about being nervous very well might. Breathe, look down the center of the fairway and make your normal swing. Don't try to hit a perfect shot—a half-decent one will do just fine.

OK, you knew all that already. But still you hit a horrendous dribbler, and the ball is just sitting there, a few feet away, mocking you and advertising your ineptitude. At this point you could take a bow, or crack a joke to the assembled gathering ("I sure got all of that one!") or pretend there's something wrong with your driver (closely examine the clubhead, point to it, then shake your head a lot). But it's better simply to accept what happened and then do what you should always do in golf, regardless of the situation: Focus on the next shot. Don't take a mulligan, even if offered, or pick the ball up. Don't panic. Don't rush. Relax—no one cares about your lousy shot. Be grateful for the opportunity to prove to yourself and the world that you can handle this situation. Pull out a club you like— a 7-iron or a hybrid, perhaps—and zero in on the task with Tiger-like intensity. Hit the ball. Wherever it ends up, hit it again. This is golf.

Bad stuff happens in life. It's what you do next that reveals what you're really made of. Do you shrivel up after each calamity, hit the bottle and develop an unhealthy interest in Internet chat rooms? Or do you accept it, stand tall and move forward the best way you can?


__ What do you do next?__

You have a choice. You can either curl up and die. Or you can curl up and die. Your best and only hope is that he didn't hear you ask his daughter out, and she doesn't tell him. Say nothing about it and hope that they don't, either. Pay for the refreshments, thank the woman (and tip her big), then make a graceful exit. Anything you say—e.g., "That's your daughter? Wow! Your wife must be smokin' hot!"—will likely only make things worse. Something else: We admire your confidence and optimism, and we certainly don't want to stand in the way of true love, but you might want to consider getting real. Yes, Anna Nicole Smith married a man 63 years her senior, but here on planet Earth, a beautiful young woman who has to spend all day being nice to sweaty golfers more than twice her age most probably doesn't have a whole lot of romantic interest in any of them. Try picking on someone your own age. Grow up, in other words.


What do you do next?

Subtle hints don't work. Ask the meatheads in a loud, confident voice if you can play through. Explain that you're in a rush, and you'll be out of their way in no time. For the next few seconds, hold your ground and observe them very closely. If they start to bristle, or crack their knuckles, or remove concealed weapons from about their personages, quickly say: "Tell you what, if you let us through, the drinks are on us in the clubhouse when you're done. I swear we'll be out of your way in five minutes." If they still don't budge, retreat, give yourselves net pars for the hole, and head straight for the 13th tee. You could also complain to the golf shop and/or the ranger(s), but beware: Those Cro-Magnon types can't stand a tattletale.


What do you do next?

Your golf swing, in the words of Prince Charles describing his ill-fated marriage to Diana Spencer, has "irretrievably broken down." So what? Get over yourself. There's absolutely no reason your miserable golf should make anyone else miserable. It's your job to make sure your clients have a good time. Humor will save the day. A carefully prepared arsenal of self-deprecating remarks will deflect the shame, embarrassment and sheer misery of chronic bad play:

"Sorry guys, I'm about as useless as an ashtray on a motorcycle today." "I'm putting with all the touch of a chimpanzee. On crack. Wearing boxing gloves. Blindfolded." "I'm about as much use as a one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest."

And so on. Manage your poor play as best you can. Leave the driver in the bag. Lower your expectations and play smart. Change your stance, backswing—anything. Try to find some kind of rhythm. Tell the others you'd welcome any swing tips. Invoke the "no hunt" rule that Lee Trevino plays in pro-ams—he doesn't expect his playing partners to look for his lost balls, and he isn't looking for theirs—except that you should look for theirs. And repair their ball marks. Attend the flag. Say nice things about their swings. Ask about their families, their work, their lawns. (People love to talk about their lawns.) Pick up when you're out of a hole. Keep smiling. Tip the beverage-cart driver and whisper a request that he/she return to your group every three holes. Apologize for your poor play—once—but don't dwell on it, complain or make excuses. Never get angry. And keep those one-liners coming. This is a test. We think you'll pass with great dignity, style and grace.


What do you do next?

A bet is a bet. Pay up. And don't ever get into a jam like this again; your days of trying to be a high roller are over. What's that you say? You really can't afford to pay? You're willing to lose all your credibility by trying to worm out of the debt? To prove that your word, your integrity and your honor count for nothing? You'll take the shame? You're prepared to lose any shred of dignity you might have once had? OK, fine. Perhaps dignity in this situation might be overrated. So come clean: Tell the guy things got out of hand, and you've gotten in way over your head. Apologize, plead and beg. (If the shoe is on the other foot—you won the bet and the other guy can't pay it—enjoy a bit of groveling from him before deciding whether to let him off the hook.) Try to negotiate down the debt, or figure out a more manageable payment plan—offer him your new set of woods instead, for example, or say: "I don't want to fall out over this. How about I take you for a slap-up meal at that steakhouse down the road once a month for the next year?" If the guy won't budge, however, you have no choice but to take out that loan. Game—and friendship—over. Lesson learned.


What do you do next?

Your big mistake was not using the facilities while you had the chance. Learn from that. In the words of Janis Joplin, get it while you can. But what to do now? You're pretty sure you can't make the rest of the back nine without causing some sort of internal injury. You certainly won't enjoy your golf. So you gotta go—when nature calls, nature must be answered. First, scan the landscape. Is there really nowhere with a modicum of privacy where you can take care of business? A tree, a hedge, a wall? A hump, a swale, a really deep pot bunker? It's not a big deal if you're discreet about it—and probably those two women aren't nearly as uptight as you think they are. Second, take a look at the course map and see if any upcoming holes pass close to the clubhouse. If all else fails, tell the group you left your cell phone/wallet/lucky Tibetan coin back in the halfway house and need to go get it; you'll catch them later. If you've got a cart to get there quicker, so much the better. Whatever you do, don't suffer in silence. We don't want any accidents out there.


What do you do next?

Last time we saw this happen was at a club near our office. One of our pals bounced a career tee shot off a guy who'd been bugging us all summer (slow play). Hit him right in the calf, and he crumpled. He got up off the ground and pointed back at us going, "Yoooou!"—just like Judge Smails in "Caddyshack."

Fact is, when you're in the wrong, you're in the wrong. Forget the old business deal that went sour. Get to the scene of the accident as fast as you can. Run. Check if the guy is OK, and if necessary call an ambulance. Apologize deeply, widely and often, until you're told to shut up. Attempt to explain the situation. Offer lunch and drinks for the entire group. Apologize again. Most important: Once it's all over and the guy is patched up, make your buddy an offer he can't refuse for that driver.


What do you do next?

It's just a harmless joke, right? These guys didn't mean anything by it. So you laugh along and play the game and have a good old day. Or do you? If you're not offended by the joke, could it be that you're a bit racist yourself? Or if you do find it offensive but decide to play along, aren't you nothing but a spineless moral coward? What if this would-be funny guy is a cop, or an immigration officer, or a teacher, or works in sales, advertising, media or any one of countless other professions where such tired attitudes, stereotypes, prejudices and jokes can cause real harm to real people. Funny, huh?

You can't play with these guys (why would you want to?). If you choose to tell 'em why, so much the better (cue Burke's dictum about evil triumphing when good men do nothing). But maybe actions can speak louder than words. Pick up your bag and tell the starter you'd like to play with some different people—preferably ones that don't still live in a cave.


What do you do next?

Some people think club rules are quaint holdovers from the 19th century that are not really meant to be observed. Others think they're open to interpretation. Is a BlackBerry a cell phone, for instance? The rule is meant to ban electronic intrusion, right? What's the difference? The club rules might say no blue jeans, but your guest paid $200 for his wife's blue jeans, so they're not really blue jeans, they're designer jeans, and the rule applies only to $30 blue jeans, right?

Mr. Big, however, is clearly breaking the rule. And this isn't like your boss lighting up a cigarette in your car when you don't allow anybody to smoke in the beloved T-Bird. This isn't your rule. It's a club rule. You should have called Mr. Big on it in the locker room—it's always best to "bend the twig while it's green," as the saying goes. Now you have no choice but to march right up to him on the fairway and tell him: "Boss, they're really strict about cell phones around here. They're absolutely forbidden. I know it's crazy, but if you get caught, I might be looking to join another club. So could you help me out and not use the cell today?" Get close physically: Close talking conveys a sense of urgency. If he still persists, you'll just have to suck it up for the rest of the day if you don't want to get fired (or mysteriously passed over for that promotion you deserve). Throw yourself on the mercy of the club president. Chances are you won't get kicked out of the club—the worst that'll likely happen is, you'll get a letter of reprimand, because in the hierarchy of crimes, not preventing a guest from using a cell phone on the course is akin to rolling through a stop sign. Anyway, now you know why the chairman of the board is called Mr. Big—because he's a big, huge, giant pain in the whatsit.


What do you do next?

What to do? Do you shout out: "What on earth do you think you're doing?" Whip out your camera and take a few pictures to be used for blackmail? Inform the club? Tell your buddies? Tell the guy's wife? Would she even want to know? We're reminded of a rules situation involving Denis Watson in a U.S. Open more than 20 years ago. Watson let his ball rest on the edge of the hole too long: It eventually fell in, a rules official observed the violation and called the penalty, and Watson lost the Open by a shot. A USGA sage was asked what he would have done in the same situation. He told us: "I'd have made sure I was standing in a place where I couldn't see what happened." There's a lot of wisdom in that. Some things are best not seen. So you get in your car and drive away. This is none of your business.

Perhaps the temptation to share such a juicy morsel of gossip with your wife is irresistible. Fair enough. But be warned: This kind of news can travel like a brush fire, destroying everything in its path, the end result being ruined friendships, reputations, marriages. As Kahlil Gibran says: "If you reveal your secrets to the wind, you should not blame the wind for revealing them to the trees." Get in the car. Do absolutely nothing about what you just saw. It never happened.