Sad episode of only rules and courses

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The Independent Online
National outrage achieved the most notable victory of the week by forcing Burhill Golf Club into one of the fastest back-tracks in sporting history when they hastily re- affirmed the right of a mother and her adopted son to play in the club's annual family foursomes competition. This prompt and highly proper reversal was unable, alas, to undo the damage suffered by the boy, his mother and the fair name of golf when they were disqualified after reaching the third round of this year's event.

Golf clubs being among the most unbreachable bastions of all sporting institutions, we are never likely to know who at Burhill deemed that only blood relations constituted an acceptable family partnership or who complained that Audrey Briggs and her son, Laurie, did not fulfil this requirement. That it should have happened at all appalled golfers and non-golfers alike but it should not have been surprising.

At my golf club last week I posed two questions on the subject among several fellow members, most of them women. I asked them to guess which sex the person who complained belonged to and, secondly, whether such a disgraceful act could take place at our club.

The first answer was, unanimously: "A woman."

The second, resoundingly, was: "Yes."

This response, which I believe would be repeated in most golf clubs throughout the land, sounds like a sad reflection on both women and golf clubs, but any conclusions about golf require a little knowledge of the game and the unique peculiarities of those in its thrall.

No other sport is governed by as many rules whose origins have been lost in the mists of time and no other sport compares in the self-disciplined way those rules are followed by players at all levels of the game from the top professionals to the lowliest amateurs. The rules are accompanied by a strict etiquette and there is a code of conduct to be followed off the course as strictly as on it. The clothes you wear, the bars you drink in . . . there is no end to the protocol before you even get to which competitions you can enter. For instance, we have at our club a long-established mixed-foursomes tournament called the Eros Cup. You would think that any tournament named after the god of love would embrace a rare and tender approach to a sporting activity. But only married couples are eligible to enter. Young men and women yet to reach that state but mutually bewitched are debarred, as would be Romeo and Juliet, Dante and Beatrice, Troilus and Cressida. Tradition dictates that it is possible for the Eros Cup to sit proudly on the mantelpiece of two people who can't stand the sight of each other.

The game seems to thrive on such quaintness and is able to do so through the voluntary efforts of eagle-eyed vigilantes at every club. Ogres occupy golf clubs in numbers roughly similar to their presence in other long- established and tradition-bound sporting institutions but they are able to register a disproportionate influence because of the game's awe of the regulations.

I can't produce figures to prove the predominance of women amongst those ogres but I can vouch for the zealousness with which they patrol the clubs in search of breaches of the rules. It is a paradox, because women are so discriminated against they owe the game very little in blind obedience.

Much the least attractive facet that golf has inherited from bygone days is the colour, religious and class prejudice that still exists in some clubs. Even now, the worst aspect of that is the way women are still kept at arm's length, denied full membership and, thus, the rights to vote on club matters.

Perhaps their militant tendency helps to perpetuate that denial. Only too aware of the fearsome qualities of the women concerned, the men are terrified what would happen if they gained equal rights.

Golf is a funny old game, played by funny old people in funny old clubs. But no other sport has kept its strength, traditions and independence so well or so faithfully. It is loath to change but it is gradually doing so and perhaps the experience of Audrie and Laurie Briggs will hasten the game towards a more enlightened future.

Michael Bonallack, secretary of the game's ruling body, the Royal & Ancient Golf Club, was as bitter as anyone in his condemnation of Burhill's action but I fancy he was a little off the mark when he said: "Family foursomes are meant to be fun."

I'm sure they are meant to be but there are few more grimly contested events in a golf club's calendar and my only fear is that this relaxation of the old rules will mean there'll be more than a few ladies queueing up to adopt Tiger Woods.

The farce of Scotland's World Cup qualifying match against Estonia on Wednesday - a genuine hollow victory - was compounded by the referee's insistence on going through the motions of Scotland kicking off in the absence of their opponents who claimed they couldn't comply with the re- arranged time.

The game had been due to take place in the evening but the Scots took a dim view of the poor floodlighting at the Tallinn stadium and Fifa ordered the afternoon kick-off for which Estonia failed to turn up.

The referee was Miroslav Radoman, who was stated in reports to be Yugoslavian. I thought there was no longer such a country, which thus presented us with the sight of a referee from a non-existent country blowing the whistle to start a non-existent match.

The ref, no doubt, felt he was following the rules to the letter by starting and then ending it once Scotland had set the ball rolling. According to the laws of the game, however, he was wrong. There is a small formality listed under Law 8 which states that at the beginning of a game, choice of ends and the kick-off shall be decided by the toss of a coin. The team winning the toss has the option of choosing ends or kicking off.

I presume, if there was a toss, that Scotland called heads or tails correctly; otherwise, they would not have been entitled to kick off. But, having elected to kick off, they were not entitled to choose ends. Perhaps, they telephoned the Estonian team to ask which end they would play had they been present. If they didn't, then Scotland both chose ends and kicked off which is a clear contravention of the rules and Estonia can demand a re-play.

There is also the matter of John Collins. It was my impression from television that when Billy Dodds kicked off by rolling the ball to him, Collins was standing over the centre line and just inside the Estonian half. Law 11 states that a player is offside if at the moment the ball is played there are fewer than two opponents between him and the goal- line. Since there were no opponents within 60 miles, Collins was clearly offside.

Obviously, the match must be played in a proper manner and Estonia should not only be able to choose ends but to start with an indirect free-kick a yard inside their half. I fear there will be many complications to sort out before the relevant Fifa committee meets in November.

Until then, we will all be left in the dark - which is precisely where the Estonians wanted to play in the first place.