By John E. Price
In the third round of the 2018 US Open, Phil Mickelson broke one of the biggest taboos in golf: he ran across the green and hit a moving ball. It was an automatic two-stroke penalty and Phil took a 10 on the hole. To some, Mickelson included, the penalty was enough of a reprimand, but the calls for Phil to be disqualified were immediate and vocal. To non-golfers the whole affair might seem trivial and melodramatic, but golf is a sport mired in its history, its traditions, and a self-enforced code of conduct.
The Necessity of Traditions
As Bascom outlined six decades ago, traditions maintain community. They do this four basic ways: by allowing for escapism from the strict impositions of outside society; by educating new members on the values prized by society; by validating the culture and giving its rituals meaning; and by enforcing social control. Due to its unique challenges and singular nature, the necessity for traditions is arguably more important in golf than any other major sport. To put it bluntly, golfing is very difficult. Men and women can spend their whole lives practicing and never get good. And yet it remains a global force, in large part because of the challenge. The appeal has perhaps been best described by Arthur Daley (New York Times sportswriter): “Golf is like a love affair. If you don’t take it seriously, it’s no fun; if you do take it seriously, it breaks your heart.”
I can attest from personal experience that the golf swing is the weirdest, most unnatural action in all of sports. You don’t need to take my word for it, though. One of the sport’s legends and the man considered by many to have the greatest swing of all time, Ben Hogan himself quipped: “Reverse every natural instinct and do the opposite of what you are inclined to do, and you will probably come very close to having a perfect golf swing.” And even if the perfect golf swing is achieved, there’s no guarantee where the ball will go, if it will fade or hook, or get caught by the wind, or bounce into the rough. Virtually no part of the game of golf is totally controllable by the individual. This built-in lack of control leads players into the realm of traditions, be they superstitions, taboos, or other forms of “magic.”
The less control a person has over an action, the more that person will rely on traditions to ground them. George Gmelch brought this to the public’s attention by detailing superstitions and traditions in baseball: “Magic is a human attempt to impose order and certainty on a chaotic, uncertain situation. This attempt is irrational in that there is no causal connection between the instruments of magic and the desired consequences of the magical practice. But it is rational in that it creates in the practitioner a sense of confidence, competence and control, which in turn is important to successfully executing a specific activity and achieving a desired result.” He details how the players with the most uncertainty (pitchers) have the most ritual performances, and the ones with the least uncertainty (fielders) have the least number of ritual performances.
In golf, uncertainty is the norm. Google “golf quotes” and you will see that almost all of them are about the uncontrollable nature of the sport. Go to a club house and you will hear and see dozens of rituals and superstitions playing out in real time. And of course, each golfer has their own performative traditions, be they ritualistic (putting on one specific shoe first), or material (only using one specific brand of ball), or psychological (taking three practice swings). That sense of control is a key component of the game, and in a larger lens, the entire culture surrounding the game.
The Legacy Inherited
The USGA rulebook is filled to the brim with traditions codified over the centuries. There’s also an unspoken rulebook just as thick that every golfer learns over time. These two work in tandem to maintain the structure of the community, just as Bascom prescribed. A golfer’s education comes not just from the rulebook but also from the elders on the course who reinforce the traditions. Breaking a rule costs you strokes, but it also costs you respect and cultural capital. Nothing illustrates this point more than one of the most legendary moments in sports history: when Bobby Jones called a penalty on himself.
In the 1925 US Open, Bobby Jones’ ball moved during his approach. No one else saw it move. It was a one-stroke penalty. He went on to lose a two-round playoff to Willie Macfarlane by one stroke. Jones later said, “You might as well praise me for not robbing banks.” No matter his own feelings, it was an iconic moment that quickly turned into more than anecdote, but a legendary tale that educates, enforces, validates, and controls the structural norms of the golf community. As told to me in a clubhouse a few years ago, Jones’ actions spurred on Grantland Rice’s famous quote: “it’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.”*
*This is factually incorrect, the quote is a mischaracterization of Rice’s “Autumn Football” (1941), but that it’s tied in memory to Bobby Jones speaks to the power of the values and history being enforced.
The moment was dramatized in Bobby Jones: Stroke of Genius (2004) and fictionalized in The Legend of Bagger Vance (2000). It continues to be praised as one of the highest examples of sportsmanship, ever. The lesson to all golfers is clear: this is the legacy you must live up to, and not just the professionals – Jones was an amateur, after all.
The Reality of Traditions
Obviously, most golfers aren’t out there playing for championships or worried about the legacy of Bobby Jones; the vast majority are out on weekends having a good time with their friends. But the rules and traditions are the backbone of the sport. Even those weekend duffers know their dress, behavior, and actions must be in line with the accepted norms, or there will be consequences, be they formal or informal.
And this is how traditional cultures operate: the traditions establish a folkloric boundary, through which reality itself changes. This is why the outrage over Mickelson’s actions was so immediate and vocal, not just from sportswriters but regular viewers via social media. Those outside of the community aren’t tied to the traditions and norms of the internal reality, but those within the community are. Compounding the situation are the symbolism of Mickelson’s status as one of golf’s biggest names and the context: the US Open – the very place where Jones established the morals and ethics by which all golfers live! Mickelson broke the rules, and was penalized according to the official rules. But arguably more importantly, Mickelson insulted the legacy established for him by a century of tradition. The announcers knew it, the spectators knew it, and golfers around the world knew it.
Coming to Mickelson’s defense was Jon Daly, himself known for thumbing his nose at traditions and golf’s unwritten culture. Michael Bamberger at Golf.com tried to immediately contextualize Mickelson’s actions as, “Phil marches to his own drummer,” but admitted that his “Happy Gilmore moment” failed the spirit of golf. Friends like these, eh?
In the end, I predict it will go down as a black mark on Mickelson’s legacy, if not in the official histories or biographies, certainly in the unofficial, lived culture found in clubhouses across the world. Golf as a cultural institution has existed for over a hundred years and its rules are not easily rewritten or dismissed. But that’s the point of traditions, isn’t it? To maintain community and control the uncontrollable.
As always, though, it’s best to let Mr. Twain have the final word: “It is good sportsmanship not to pick up lost balls while they are still rolling.”
John E. Price is a doctoral candidate (ABD) and instructor in American Studies and Communications at Penn State Harrisburg. He received his M.A. in American Studies and B.A. in History from George Washington University in Washington, DC. His research interests focus on the performance of American identity during the Cold War, primarily through the intersection of popular culture and folklife. He also serves as Editor of the peer-reviewed journal New Directions in Folklore. You can him reach at firstname.lastname@example.org or find him on twitter @thejohnprice.