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After teeing up his ball and taking a practice swing, Bailey Root, founder-ruler of the U.S. Duffers' Association, looked toward the green, a mere 358 yards away. He set his feet and locked his powerful arms into position. An extra layer of paunch spilled out over his belt, but no matter. The better to put extra oomph into his swing. He aimed. He swung. The ball took off—momentarily. Then, characteristically, it caromed off the edge of the tee, hippetyhopped to the left and, after a trip of, oh, 36 yards, came to rest near some trees. Root smiled.
That Bailey Root could smile, even ruefully, after such a drive is, in part, the secret of his success, and that of the organization he leads. To be sure, Root would have preferred a 236-yard smash—who wouldn't?—but a 36-yarder is the kind a Duffer, with a capital "D," can love. One reason is that only in the funky atmosphere of Dufferdom would such a shot be considered a possible trophy winner. In last year's first annual Duffers' Championship, Jack Engesser of Cincinnati, who is 7'3" tall and weighs 330 pounds, hit a prize-winning shot that is still talked about wherever Duffers gather. It went 13 feet 2 inches, or not quite twice Engesser's height.
The Duffer's trophy is doubly sweet, because it is unexpected. Only the organizers of a particular Duffers' tournament know ahead of time when a prize is to be given for shortest drives. Otherwise there would be too many conscious attempts to do what all duffers (lower case "d") do unconsciously: whiff, dub, shank, top, etc. So Root and his friends secretly set aside holes where feats of inability pay off—most putts taken, most lost balls, that sort of thing—and throw in other holes where real prowess is rewarded, just to keep his charges honest.
Honest? Well, yes, that is a point of dispute between Bailey Root and the hard liners of the golfing world who think The Rules of Golf are inviolate. Is it honest to turn your ball over and take advantage of a slightly higher tuft of fairway grass? Should you be allowed to substitute a shiny new ball for your "fairway" ball when you reach the green? The Rules of Golf say, unequivocally, no. Bailey Root says, in effect, let's think about it.
"Play golf my way and I guarantee you'll have fun," Root boasts. He is certain his way has helped the 11,600 members of his U.S. Duffers' Association to sleep better and to get rid of that dread golfing psychosis, "pro syndrome." The Duffer's rest is blissful. Root contends, because he sleeps the sleep of the innocent, his transgressions washed away in the ink of The Duffers' Code.
That golfers bend the rules from time to time is a recognized fact of the game. What is not so generally understood is that the duffer may have a more difficult game to play than his professional counterpart. For example, take lost balls. This has become an almost extinct peril for the pros (when Jack Nicklaus lost a ball at the 8th hole at the Masters this year, it was big news), who have the services of forecaddies. Their job is to watch every shot that is hit and follow it to its final resting place, there to plant a flag to which the player can go immediately. Balls that escape the forecaddies are rare, but even these are usually spotted by spectators (who have been known to give them a kindly flip away from a tree or back to the fairway).
A Sunday duffer out on a publinx layout, on the other hand, not only lacks a forecaddie, he lacks any caddie at all. And if his playing partners are oblivious to his shots—as they often are—only he sees where his ball is headed. Even if it is seen, to hunt for it in the rough or woods is usually impossible. The memory of six foursomes stacked up at the previous tee is too clear for that.
But should the golfer lose his ball, a stroke and return to the place he hit from? Root thinks this is unfair and aggravating. Thus he doesn't mind seeing the rules bent once in a while. But cheat? Never. "We don't cheat," Root insists. "We just make it legal to do what almost everyone does anyway. Even PGA boss Joe Dey admits only 2% of golfers abide by all the rules. So why penalize weekend golfers by making them play under rules meant for pros? Most of them are caught up in this 'pro syndrome,' trying to emulate Palmer and Player and believing golf should be a struggle."
Root began his crusade for liberated golf seven years ago when he read about a player who had shot a 76 but who, if penalized for all his infractions, would have had a 174. His 98 penalty strokes would have been levied for such violations as replacing his ball on the green with a new one, carrying too many clubs, improving his lie in the fairway and pulling weeds away from his ball in the rough—the kind of things weekend golfers do all the time. So Root rewrote the rules, and now Duffers are not punished for such sins.
Under USDA rules, a Duffer who shanks his drive out of bounds can take another at a penalty of one stroke rather than two, as called for by conventional strictures. A Duffer can also improve his lie as much as six inches, can smooth out spike prints on the green and can clean or replace his ball at any time. He can whiff without counting it. If he hits in water, he can drop on the far side of the hazard at a cost of only one stroke. "That way he won't keep teeing up and hitting ball after ball into the water at $1.50 a ball," explains Root. "What he's been doing is losing the baby's milk money.