The Hacker: When it comes to the backsides of cows, I've got the rules off pat

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The Independent Online

If only we could persuade everyone to stick to the rules as steadfastly as golfers adhere to theirs, the world would undoubtedly be a better place.

Not that there wouldn't be any disputes. No one argues more vehemently about rule interpretations than golfers,but they never come to blows and always submit dutifullyto arbitration.

Discipline and self-regulation are the pillars of the game's reputation as the most sporting of all sports, and players in all corners of the earth have just received their quadrennial reminder of how they should conduct themselves.

Every four years the rules of golf are revised and updated, and published in a handy booklet that fits neatly intoyour golf bag.

There is no excuse if youdon't acquire one. The Royal & Ancient have printed four million, and that's only in English. Affiliated golf unions around the world print them in over 25 other languages, ranging from Arabic to Thai.

What with the American version – the United States Golf Association jointly administer the rules with the R&A – there is no disputing the claim that it is the most widely read rulebook in the world.

If only I could get some of the blokes I play with to read it. Every golfer has a broad idea of what they can and can't do, and there are plenty around who will forcibly remind them if they don't, but there are so many areas of ignorance.

I don't advocate getting obsessed with the subject. There are golfers, I swear, whose idea of a good night is to get to bed early with a cup of cocoa and a rulebook, and they are a pain in the arse to play with.

But once every four years it's good to refresh your memory on matters ranging from course etiquette to how to proceed if your ball becomes lodged up a cow's bum. (I believe you get a free drop, but make it quick or you may get two free drops.)

The rules used to be couched in language more suited to the 19th-century gentry, but the authorities are gradually improving the clarity of the wording. They have also reduced some of the punishments. If you accidentally hit your partner with the ball you incur a one-stroke penalty instead of two. Unfortunately he doesn't get any reduction in the bruising.

The most significant change has occurred in bunker play. Previously, and probably for centuries past, you couldn't pick your ball out of the sand to identify it. You were allowed to uncover just enough to see it was a ball. If you discovered it wasn't yours after you had played it you could, without penalty, replace it and have another look for yours.

Now you can lift the ball, identify it and replace it exactly where it was before trying to splash it out. A touch short of the momentous, perhaps, but changes come commendably slow and calculated in golf.

Rolex, who sponsor the rule book, are quite lyrical about it. "With dedication like this, the impossible seems effortless," they drool.

I have no objection to praising the sponsors because I know I can trust you not to rush out and buy one of their watches as a result. But get a rulebook,whatever you do.