Ignore them at your peril

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RULES, rules, rules. Sportsmen just love rules - making them, breaking them, and above all invoking them. This week's lucky winner was Park Nam-Sin, the Dunhill Cup golfer from Korea who became entangled in the Mysterious Affair Of The Provisional Ball, a case that even Sherlock Holmes may have found beyond his talents. Park, two shots down to Christy O'Connor Jnr at the 17th, hit his tee shot wildly to the right, in the direction of the Old Course Hotel and, he thought, out of bounds.

Immediately he grabbed another ball, waved it under O'Connor's noble Irish nose and hit it straight down the fairway. Further investigation revealed, however, that the original ball was still in play, so Park ignored the second ball, and continued to play the first one. But because he hadn't told O'Connor that the second ball was 'provisional', O'Connor complained to a man in a blazer, and Park was disqualified. There was only one snag: Park didn't know the English word for 'provisional'. In fact, he didn't know the English word for anything at all, although rumour has it he has since learned the phrase 'fat Irish git'. It was a tiny slip, but it cost his country the match.

But then golf is like that. With a rule book marginally longer than the Maastricht Treaty, the game is a minefield for anyone who prefers a laissez-faire approach to sport. Sometimes literally, of course: section 5, paragaph 43, sub-section 2 (b) states that any ball that lands in a minefield should be declared out of bounds, unless the mines were laid after 1945. To survive and flourish, golfers must have the memory of a supercomputer, the patience of a saint and the concentration of a more than averagely diligent ant. No wonder they all wear strange trousers.

Curiously, there is one thing sportspeople like even more than invoking rules, and that's changing them. Rules may be considered sacrosanct in every sport, to be broken on pain of death, but no one has ever seen anything wrong with changing the rules if you don't happen to like them.

If the West Indies' fearsome fast bowlers unleash six bouncers an over at you, for example, you just bide your time until the next ICC meeting, and then propose a one-bouncer-an-over rule to stop them. Similarly, in football if you don't think defenders should spend all their time back-passing to goalkeepers, it's the work of a moment to outlaw the practice - presuming, of course, that you have had the foresight to be elected to the ruling council of Fifa.

But - and this gets ever more complicated - for every person who thinks a rule should be changed there's another who thinks it should stay just as it is. Some defenders who have fallen foul of the back-pass rule are already developing distinctly paranoid tendencies - one or two going so far as to start kicking the ball instead of opposing forwards - and for many people such apparently unjust rule changes can eventually prove mentally destabilising. Whenever Richie Benaud starts off again about the iniquities of the 'new' no-ball law (now 30 years old), psychiatrists everywhere rub their hands with glee. And the effects on the national suicide figures of the new 'miss' law in snooker could be well-nigh incalculable.

Only one sort of rule can never be changed - the unwritten rule. Written rules can be rewritten, but unwritten rules are written in stone. Rules like 'thou shalt always swap thy shirt with a member of the opposing team after an international football match.' What would happen if you said no? After all, it's perfectly all right to kick the opposition to pieces for 90 minutes, and when it's your turn, writhe around on the ground pretending you've been kicked to pieces yourself. But when someone from the other team comes up at the end, hands over his shirt (which is two sizes too small and smells of sheep after a thunderstorm) and demands yours in return, you have to comply. If you didn't, you'd probably be lynched.

And that, I suspect, is the sort of rule Mr Park really broke this week when he started hitting 'provisional' golf balls all over the place. For golf has many written rules, but only one unwritten rule: for God's sake don't be seen to break any of the rules. And you don't need an interpreter for that.