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The Great Outdoors: A GUIDE TO ORANGE COUNTY RECREATION
| IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD

Golf Is Much More Than Ready, Set, Swing

With everyone coming down with Tiger Woods fever, people are flocking to the sport. But they'd do well to study the rules.

May 23, 1997|PATRICK MOTT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It looks so easy on TV.

Tiger Woods pops a 335-yard drive, flips a wedge to within five feet of the cup and drains the putt for eagle. Does it a few dozen times. Wins the Masters.

Simple game, this golf.

Until you actually try it. Then, somehow, it mutates into Napoleon's retreat from Moscow. With rules. And, amazingly, manners. Codified manners. It's the Charge of the Light Brigade with a copy of Emily Post.

But local pros are discovering these daunting revelations are bothering many rookie golfers not one bit. Golf, played correctly, is one of the world's most difficult games, and its rules and tenets of etiquette fill books. But many modern golf wannabes only know that the idea is to hit that little round thing with this long skinny thing and try to get it onto that sort-of-round green thing and into that hole. Before the sun goes down.

Result: anarchy.

"The typical beginning golfer we're seeing now has not been instructed properly and does not have any idea about the etiquette of the game," said Scott Henderson, general manager of the Costa Mesa Golf and Country Club. "They'll see golf on TV, get a few clubs, hit a bucket of balls and jump on the course. And they can't hit the ball at all. And etiquette is the last thing on their minds. 'Repair a divot? What's that?' "

The popularity of golf as a recreational sport has been increasing steadily the last few years, but no phenomenon has given the sport such an adrenaline surge as the emergence of Tiger Woods. The quantum leap that the 21-year-old from Cypress has made to the forefront of his sport has sent adults and children out to their local courses.

Some of the courses have suffered as a result. Divots remain gouged out of fairways, injurious ball marks on greens remain unrepaired, bunkers are not raked, errant shots whistle into groups of golfers ahead, play slows to a crawl and foursomes stack up at bottlenecks on the course as novices ricochet their way to the green, their scores ascending far past the point where they are expected to pick up the ball and move on.

Sometimes the sins begin even before anyone sets foot on the course.

"I've suffered the repercussions of the Tiger Woods mayhem," said Brett Massingham, an assistant PGA professional at Tijeras Creek Golf Club. "I wandered out to the putting green one day and here are a bunch of kids with no concept about golf swinging like crazy and taking divots out of the green and saying 'I'm Tiger Woods.' I told them that golfers didn't do that, and one kid, who was about 11 and had his Nike hat on, said 'Well, I'm Tiger Woods.' These kids need to get into a junior golf program. If they keep playing this way, we're in trouble. This isn't a basketball game."

Some pros lay the blame on overconfidence.

"A lot of people think the game is a lot easier than it is," said Ray Carrasco, head teaching pro at the Laguna Hills Golf Range and an associate member of the PGA Senior Tour. "They come out and say, 'Hey, I play football, I play lots of sports, I can play everything.' But they try it and say, 'I can't understand this.' It's such a difficult endeavor, but the pros make it look so easy."

In the past, say pros, golf was learned slowly, incrementally, often at a parent's knee.

"You've got a different crowd being attracted to the game today," said Chris Nelson, an assistant PGA professional at Tijeras Creek. "They haven't learned the game from their dads or from being a caddie."

Such a scenario "would be my own experience exactly," said Henderson. "My parents took me out to caddie for them when I was 12 years old. And they were sticklers on etiquette. That was their priority, to get through to me on the rules and the etiquette."

Teaching programs and private lessons for adults and younger golfers are offered at nearly all courses, but pros say many new golfers don't take advantage of them. They want to play now.

Nelson recommended smaller executive courses for first-timers "because that's the clientele they expect to get, so the times of the rounds are going to be fairly long anyway." Bill Donovan, a member of the management team that operates Orange County-based Donovan Golf Course Management, recommended that courses offer specific classes in etiquette and rules to supplement technical training. And Massingham said he would welcome a mandatory proficiency test similar to that used throughout Europe.

"For any European player to get on a golf course," he said, "that player has to go through a supervised PGA school. There's a rules test, an etiquette test, and they're monitored during a round on the course so they understand about pace of play. This all takes a couple of months. I don't think it would work here because so many people would oppose it, but it would help immensely."

However, there is no test, anywhere, that can be administered to golf fans to ensure good behavior. Pros are nearly unanimous in their belief that the current legions of fans on the pro tour are less well-behaved than in past years.

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