Rules shape us

  • May 11, 2023

The golfer who sits unshakeably atop the game’s pantheon as the sport’s greatest player ever is also regarded by many who follow its 500-year history as a paragon of rule-bound propriety.

Yet one of its most prodigious chroniclers argues convincingly that such a perception misses a critical nuance in the character of the only player to have won all four of his era’s major tournaments in a single season.

In his explication of Bobby Jones famously calling a one-stroke penalty on himself for a rules breach that no one else had even seen (and which preceded him losing the 1925 U.S. Open by that exact amount) golf historian Mark Frost provides an extraordinary authorial service. He illuminates the ingrained greatness of Jones himself. He elevates the mysterious magnitude of golf itself. Much more, he recalls us to what it is about following the rules that makes rule following so integral to our good.

To begin with, Frost writes in The Grand Slam, Jones was left “furious” by the episode although he was its self-created epicentre. And “furious” in relation to the otherwise mild-mannered young southern gentlemanwas not meant frivolously. A pre-teen prodigy who was walloping much older opponents in tournaments before he’d completed puberty, Jones almost wrecked his career before it began with eruptions of temper.

He gave in to outbursts of club throwing so fierce he and an equally cantankerous competitor realized during a match that the loser would be the one who ran out of sticks first. Jones’ own father, whom he adored, warned severely that he’d be forbidden to play ever again unless he controlled his tantrums. He truly did so, however, only after he humiliated himself during his first time playing the Open on the hallowed course at St. Andrews in Scotland. There, on the Athens-Jerusalem-Rome of golf, he petulantly tore up his score card and eliminated himself from tournament play out of frustration at his imperfect shots. He later wept penitential tears and reformed.

So, the fury in the aftermath of the one-stroke penalty was not because of the penalty itself, nor for its contribution to his loss. What sparked his ire was public praise of him for having called the infraction when even the rules officials present, and august fellow challengers, said it wasn’t necessary.

“(The) praise…made Bobby furious. Rules were rules and he was astonished anyone who knew the first thing about the game would expect him to do anything less,” Frost writes.

Jones was later quoted as saying: “You’d as well praise me for not breaking into banks.”

At the most elemental level, Jones exemplified what golf eventually teaches everyone: the game must become an exercise in humility or it becomes an inexplicable form of insanity. In the fullest sense, however, his action conveys the instruction that we do not obey rules because they are rules, but because of who we are. Rules are guideposts to virtue. They emanate from deep within our humanity to remind that while we must acknowledge our imperfection, we must likewise never cease staying the course toward perfection as Our Saviour taught us: “Be perfect therefore as your Father in Heaven is perfect” — an imperative seemingly impossible yet non-negotiable.

The crux — we might say the Cross — of Jones’ self-inflicted penalty stroke was not so much its inevitability as its invisibility. He called it on himself, true, but, despite being the object of thousands of eyes, he did so when he was in a place on the course where only he saw his ball move illegally. His outward act of confession followed an interior act of conviction independent of external public awareness. In a different context, he might have begun: “Forgive me, father, for I have sinned….”

He might well have said  exactly those words at a later point in his life. Raised in a tempered version of his paternal grandfather’s strict Calvinism,  Jones married an Irish Catholic girl, Mary Malone, and converted to the Faith shortly before his death in 1971.

As Frost makes clear, despite his public life of golf celebrity, Jones followed in his heart the rule Our Lord laid down for us: “When you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”  

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