Placing a ball in a bunker is the new third rail of golf


Welcome to another Low Gross vs. Low Net debate, pitting two passionate golfers with differing ball flights and opinions on the game: scratch golfer and Golf Digest editorial director Max Adler against 12-handicap and digital editorial director Sam Weinman. Today’s question relates to the recent practice of golf courses removing bunker rakes as a precaution against Covid-19 transmission. If players draw an unfavorable lie in the sand as a result, they have been given the option to place their ball elsewhere in the bunker. Depending on one’s perspective, this is either a reasonable modification or a dangerous affront the game’s ethos.

Mr. Adler has the honors . . .

LOW GROSS: This moving the ball in the bunker business has got to stop. I understand we’re in a global crisis, but let’s not add to the hysteria.

Bunker rakes are heaped in maintenance sheds these days, their removal from courses a logical measure to help stop the spread of coronavirus. The USGA has announced several options for local rules during this period. They range from preferred lies to play it as it lies to other possibilities for relief and can be read here. The point is, the governing bodies have put the choice in our hands, and it’s during these times we find out who the real golfers are.

I don’t know about you, but after a week of work calls in sweatpants and cocktail hour creeping ever more treacherously toward mid-afternoon, I’m looking forward to a Saturday round with some sense of rigor restored. Leniency is necessary during quarantine—the uptick in screen-time for my young children is discomfiting and my face hasn’t seen a razor in weeks—but we can still play golf.

After a heavy rain, real golfers might play lift, clean and place. While not ideal, the integrity of a shot doesn’t change much when you’re standing in a fairway hundreds of yards out. But put your hand on the ball by the green and, ugh, the experience is ruined. It’s a hair in the entrée, the boss’s kid getting the job, the bride wearing white on her wedding day when everyone knows the story. Ten inches in a bunker can mean the world, how an ominous lip or receding slope weighs or doesn’t on the mind of the player. As for plugged lies, sorry, but a high, spinny approach rejected by the wind is destined for a fried egg in normal times, so don’t dishonor the frontline workers of COVID-19 by using the pandemic as an excuse to roll it out. If you then happen to get up and down and call it a par, that is a disgusting display of human vanity. And our world need not be inviting the wrath of the gods any more than we already are.

There was a time not long ago when there were no rakes, even at the professional level. Bunkers were hazards in the true sense of the word, and guys like Gary Player were virtuosos at handling every sort of sandy lie. If they did so with national titles on the line, we can play it down for ten bucks on Venmo.

To paraphrase Dr. Seuss (whose oeuvre our family has really dug into lately) we’ve got our heads full of brains and our shoes full of feet. Smoothing the sand with our golf shoes and a wedge upon exiting a bunker is something we all can do. The surface won’t be rake-smooth, but it gets rid of the hard heels and steep splashes whose remnants get unplayable. It’s the sort of collective good for all that only works with total participation from the population. #flattenthesand

LOW NET: These must be unsettling times for those of you who bow at the church of golf traditions. Firm handshakes are out, we’re all changing shoes in the parking lot, and it’s been months since anyone’s enjoyed a proper post-round steam. What are we, savages?

You’re right, Max, the absence of bunker rakes has entered us into murky territory, because now you risk players allowing themselves better conditions than the fates had ordained. An unfair advantage? You might think so. But remember these are also golfers trying to piece together scores during times of unprecedented stress, their struggle to get up and down interspersed with reminders of their own mortality. At the very least, let’s call it a wash.

As you insist we play the ball as it lies, you can appreciate the figurative lies these days are squirrelier than ever. Start with the fact most golf courses don’t even have their practice areas open, golfers often stepping right from their cars to the first tee with little more than a couple of knee bends as warm-up. Given the opportunity to refine my short game before the round, I might try to play out of the heel of someone’s size 11 Foot-Joy imprint. These days, in the interest of getting us all home in time for dinner, my ambition is curbed.

And that’s just me, committed to the game despite the myriad swing deficiencies you and your scratch friends snicker at from afar. When the time comes for us to square off in competition —six a side sounds about right—I concede there should be less room for creative license. Otherwise let’s cut each other some slack.

Let’s also not forget this is a moment that might draw more golfers to the course than ever. Men, women and kids who were sheepish before are filling up tee sheets around the country given golf’s promise of safe, rewarding recreation—a maddening game, sure, but decidedly reasonable given this new backdrop. It’s not that these golfers shouldn’t aspire to play the game by the rules one day. But for now as we wait on them in the fairway, I say they just give it their best shot and move on.

Where we agree is in using golf to cling to shreds of normalcy at a time when the world feels off its axis. You don’t want your skill advantage over chops like me to be negated. I’m looking for the game to challenge me without trampling my spirit. I suppose I could work this new modification to my advantage, but you need to trust I’m not. Because let’s face it: if you’re the type of golfer who is propping your ball up unduly in the bunker because you supposedly can, you were probably taking liberties back when all of us were handling rakes and flagsticks, too. Speaking of normalcy, there’s something oddly reassuring about that.

LOW GROSS: I'm not worried about you cheating me, Sam. I'm just trying to protect you from cheating yourself out of the satisfaction that comes from the real thing. I'm happy to give you six a side, but if you want in my group, we're playing it down in the sand.

LOW NET: OK, if you're hosting, you make the rules. But just know players of my level consider a well-played bunker shot out of any lie a small miracle. As with much of life, the key to happiness in golf is lower expectations.