Things You Think You Know About Golf 6

As the golf season moves into its busiest time, we will all be happy to play as many rounds as possible and maybe take some money off our friends in an occasional $10 Nassau. But golf is not just about the playing, it’s also about camaraderie, those crazy conversations on the tee or along the fairway, about a putting tip that someone read in a new instruction book, an incredible 7-iron approach shot that was on The Golf Channel last night or maybe even one of those age-old questions about the history of the game, the rules or the star players that we all admire so much.

Passionate 19th-hole arguments about the game are sometimes as much fun as playing golf itself, especially if your handicap is creeping upward while your drives seem to go backward.

Therefore, in the spirit of fellowship, here are a few questions that may keep you and your friends busy over the next few months, subjects that we all think we know all about, but really we don’t. Enjoy!

Why are golf courses called links?

Golf was an informal game in its earliest days, at least as far back as the 1400s in Scotland. Men often played on previously unused and relatively flat, open ground in seaside towns—“links”—between the sea with its adjacent beach and grassy inland. This land was often a combination of fine sand and stubborn grass, full of dunes and proved to be ideal for this new game. The term “links” now seems obvious to describe where the game emerged, but according to the Links Association, there are not that many true links courses. The association declares a links course should be situated alongside a river estuary, provide at least some views of the sea, contain numerous bunkers, but virtually no trees and be constructed so that its two nines are routed out and back from the clubhouse. Using that criteria, there are only around 250 links courses in the world, and just over 200 of those are in the U.K. or Ireland. So, be careful when you tell someone that you’re off to the links because it may not be strictly true.

What are the rules for slow play?

The issue of slow play is a major problem for golf’s ruling bodies. Pros ignore what the rule book says, very rarely keeping to time, which means amateurs watch them on TV and copy the pace of professional golf that, at best, can be described as “deliberate.” However, the PGA Tour laws clearly state pace of play includes a 40-second time limit for each shot once it is your turn to play. There are an additional 20 seconds allowed, but only in certain circumstances such as being the first player to play his or her stroke to start a hole or on an approach shot to the hole or on the putting green itself. Next time you watch the pros, use a stopwatch to see how the likes of Jordan Spieth often play at a snail’s pace, while stars including Rory McIlroy are super fast by comparison.

Why is golf an 18-hole game?

In the earliest days of its development, golf was played informally in all kinds of open spaces wherever enthusiasts could find enough room to swing a club, and there were no formal golf courses as we know them today. Players would hit towards a hole or maybe just a flag as a target, and the “course” could change from day to day. Slowly over the centuries, course layouts became more formal, and golfing rules were written, but even by the early 18th century, there was plenty of variation in the number of holes that constituted a course. For example, St Andrews in Scotland boasted 22 holes at that time, while the first golf club in America—Savannah GC in Georgia—may have been formed in 1764, but it took until the early 20th century before members were playing 18 holes. The British rules-making body the Royal and Ancient began standardizing the number of holes at 18 in the early 1900s because St Andrews finally adopted the number. And if 18 was good enough for the home of golf, then it was good enough for everyone else as well including courses in America.

When did golf become a truly international sport?

Perhaps the best answer to this question comes from the history of the major championships. The Open Championship began in 1860 in Prestwick in western Scotland and Brits, mostly Scots, took the title every year for almost half a century until 1907 when Frenchman Arnaud Massy broke the streak. The PGA Championship started in 1916 and was won by men from Britain or America all the way until 1947 when little known Australian Jim Ferrier became champion. The Masters, which only started in 1934, was an Americans-only event in its early days and it took until 1961 for an international winner to emerge—Gary Player of South Africa. But perhaps the most remarkable story of internationalism comes from the U.S. Open, which began in 1895. Brits and Americans would win that championship all the way until 1965 when Player again became the first international winner. Meanwhile, 1994 remains the most international season ever—it’s the only time all four majors have been won by international players. Jose Maria Olazabal, of Spain, won the Masters; Ernie Els, of South Africa, won the U.S. Open; and Nick Price, of Zimbabwe, won both the British Open and the PGA Championship.

There is more than one Ryder Cup

Well, actually there are three. And I know because I’ve played in one of them. Samuel Ryder is the English seed merchant who gave his name to this spectacular team event back in 1927. He bought the trophy, donated a chunk of money to allow the inaugural match to take place in Massachusetts and so deserved to be known as the founder of the competition. However, he was so pleased with the second event back at Moortown Golf Club in Yorkshire, England, that he created another competition under his name—a replica gold trophy is contested each year by the ladies of Moortown in a special singles competition. The third Ryder Cup was sent out to Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) in 1933 to Ryder’s daughter, Marjorie. She and her husband had emigrated from Britain and begun playing golf in southern Africa but didn’t have a cup to play for. So the generous Ryder sent off a similar version to the original—although without a lid—and it was played for in various formats for many decades. Then, in 2014, it was decided to use what had become known as “The Zimbabwe Ryder Cup” for a friendship match between local amateur players and a visiting team mostly from Britain and America. I was proud to be the vice captain of the international team in that inaugural event and, although we lost, the story of the third Ryder Cup was sent around the world and has become part of the real competition’s remarkable history.

The Zimbabwe Ryder Cup and other fascinating golf stories can be found in Ross Biddiscombe’s acclaimed book Ryder Cup Revealed: Tales of the Unexpected, available in hardback, paperback or e-book on Amazon.