Honesty is defined as the quality or state of being truthful, not deceptive. Many view golf as unique from other sports in that players regularly call penalties on themselves and report their own scores. I am sure there is some number of amateur hacks who believe that golfers are essentially honest and follow that mantra, but in my experience, honesty in golf is a hilarious oxymoron.
Buzz Rettig provides an exceptionally funny depiction of honesty in golf in his book Golf Dogs. The main character is Travis Dempsey, a middle-level handicapper who is tired of perennially losing. Winning the championship is now an obsession. Dempsey hatches an ingenious plot to push his quest for club bragging rights. The setting is the (fictitious) elite Van Courtland Country Club near Fredericksburg, VA, where Tiberius J. Muck and three buddies have won the title for seven straight years. It’s questionable if Muck and company are that good or just very clever with their handicaps and scoring.
The innocent dupe in the plan is Dempsey’s Jack Russell terrier, ArnieP. Dempsey trained the pooch to track golf balls, especially into the long rough. ArnieP is a personal canine ball spotter.
Dempsey’s first step is to convince McTavish, the gruff starter and golf guru, who rules with an iron fist and is a purist for the game. Travis cleverly convinces him that canine trackers are not prohibited by rule.
“One day while playing I heard a pack of dogs baying in the distance. I wondered what it would be like to have dogs track down balls, if they could even be trained. Hence the idea for the book hatched,” Rettig told me about how the book got started.
Rettig is passionate about the golf’s camaraderie “Everyone plays their own game, but a foursome can be a group of total strangers sharing a common passion and experience. Each knows how it feels to make a bad shot, hit a tree, lose a ball, or sink an impossible putt.”
Golf is a game with interesting social dynamics. The golfer plays against the course as much as he plays against another other person. At times it is collegial. Groups of four spend four to five hours sharing stories, jokes and the occasional miracle shot. It’s all good, until a few dollars are bet or a five dollar trophy is on the line. Then clubs and accusations fly and a brief medical malady, shot amnesia, takes over.
Through humor Rettig reaffirms what occurs on private club settings. Golfers are some of the nicest, friendliest people you’ll meet. And they’ll tell you that. Inside their clique, they think of themselves that way. Those on the outside view them directly and the Dempsey-Muck type of acrimony puts an exclamation point on what exists in most clubs.
Rettig does not believe the majority of golfers intentionally cheat to win. “I firmly believe that golfers are honest,” he says, but I have to ask, “Is it cheating when a two-ton boulder is declared a ‘loose impediment’ to aide a famous pro?”
But Rettig admits hackers do regularly use tactics to aide their game. The “Mulligan,’ hitting a second ball without taking a stroke, moving the ball away from a goose dropping, shaving strokes on the scorecard, and of course, the ‘foot wedge.” My personal favorite for stretching honesty is the handicap. I find it remarkable when a 25 handicap shoots a 79 and proclaims it the best round of his life, in consecutive rounds over a three-day event.
Over the summer Travis Dempsey and pals stay in contention for the championship until animal rights activists learn of the scheme and all hell breaks loose. Things go to the dogs, reaching a comic conclusion.
Buzz Rettig lives in the Northern Virginia with his wife, where he works as a consultant to the government. His first effort is a must read as golf season rolls in.