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Original Issue

Taking the pain from the game

The USDA (not USGA!) offers balm for the anguished duffer

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.

"We wouldn't countenance the injustice done Roberto de Vicenzo when he signed an incorrect scorecard and missed tieing Bob Goalby for first place in the '68 Masters," continues Root. "We would just have handed him an eraser."

Some purists have nicknamed the USDA chief the Root of All Evil, but he is serene in his righteousness. One fact that helps him live with himself is the enrollment of his young organization. Already, the USDA has more members than the PGA (6,646), the LPGA (180) or the USGA, whose enrollment consists of 3,819 golf courses, not people. There are USDA members almost everywhere—Saudi Arabia, Laos, Thailand, England, France. And if Root is regarded as a sporting malevolence by some, he bears no ill will. For instance, he sees a continuing function for the two citadels of traditional golfing wisdom, the USGA and the PGA. "They both serve their purpose," he says rather grandly. "Ours is to at long last give the weekend golfer a chance to play under rules meant for him."

Officially, a Duffer is "any person playing the game who desires to be called a Duffer" and who joins the association. On the membership rolls are Jackie Gleason, Perry Como and Bing Crosby. Duffers, too, are Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus, though Root regards them as "honorary." The truth may be, however, that both Arnie and Jack long to escape pressure golf and begin to play again for fun.

Root, a real-estate agent, estimates he has spent $15,000 on his organization, and has recently decided to devote his full time to the Duffers. He hopes to transform it from a nonprofit group into a profitable one. From USDA headquarters in his home town of Newport, Ky., Root has embarked on a membership drive—$3 for a lifetime card—and several grandiose plans. Root foresees a string of Duffers Taverns and Duffers Dens, the former being restaurants with golf motifs, the latter being driving ranges, "where the average guy would get decent balls and clubs and instant TV replay of his swing."

Above all, Root wants to improve USDA tournaments, expanding the present dozen or so events and renewing his Duffers World Open. Last year's national championship at Newport had 95 entrants. This year there were only 45 contestants at Spring Valley, N.Y. Henceforth, the national will be in Newport, which Root hopes to convert someday into a kind of Cooperstown for shankers.

Root himself has a 15 handicap and willingly tells of the time he blew an eight-stroke lead on the final hole of a match. Another time, he tossed his driver and four-iron into a tree and had to climb up to get them. Now, however, Root exhibits his two real, if esoteric, talents in golf: he can stack four golf balls on top of each other, and he knows how to make the game fun for himself and for others.

Many duffers approach golf as if it were spelled backward, but thanks to Bailey Root, whether they golf or flog, Duffers can come up laughing.