Be careful on the course: Hidden dangers of golf

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By Elsa Bonstein, Golf Gab

Compared with football, basketball and ice hockey, golf is a genteel, stately sport.
Golfers don’t crash into each other trying to get the ball into the hole. There are no referees on the links. Golfers are expected to know the rules of golf and to follow them.
But that doesn’t mean there are no dangers. You can get hurt playing golf. Obviously, golfers need to be careful of snakes, alligators and fire ants in this area, but they also need to be careful of other golfers and Mother Nature.  
Let me explain.
About 10 years ago, I was playing golf at Thistle Golf Club with some friends from the North. We were on the seventh hole of the Cameron Nine. My friend Joan took out her 7-wood to hit over the water hazard to the green. I was, unfortunately, standing slightly ahead of her and to the left. She took a mighty swing and heeled the ball into my right hand, breaking the small fragile bones just below the ring finger.
Joan felt terrible and cried with me in the hospital when the X-rays came back. I was in a cast for the rest of the summer, but it was my fault, not Joan’s. I never should have been standing that close and ahead of her, and I learned a hard lesson that day: Never stand in front of a golfer who is taking a swing. If they shank or slice or heel or top the ball, you cannot get out of the way in time, even if you see it coming.  
When I called my husband from the hospital to tell him my right hand was broken, his asked, “Did you finish the round?”  
“Finish the round?” I yelled. “My hand is broken!”
“But it’s your right hand and you only had two more holes to go. You love that course; I thought you would tough it out and finish the round.”
I met a gentleman last month who knocked out his four front top teeth last March when he swung at a ball and hit a root. His club shaft bent at impact, sending it into his face.
“My ball was lying in the pine straw on a course with a lot of trees,” Larry Lucia said. “The pine needles were perfectly flat and there was no indication that there were roots underneath. It was a good lie, only 155 yards from the green, so I grabbed my 7-iron and took a mighty swing. The next thing I know, the club is bent almost in half and my front teeth are all pushed back. I looked like Bugs Bunny.”
Lucia is a big man, a former football player, and licensed spray tech. He has played golf for 27 years and worked on the green crew at golf courses in several states. He now works for Etheridge Pest Control. This is not a casual golfer but a man who plays golf often and well and knows golf courses intimately.
“There wasn’t a lot of blood; my teeth were just bent backwards,” Lucia said. “It was a Saturday, so all the dentists were closed that day. I saw the dentist on Monday then had to wait another week to get my teeth pulled.”
Lucia is a tough guy and finished the round that Saturday.
“I played the next day, too, but with a football mouth guard,” he said. “On Monday, I went to work with a mask on. People just assumed I had allergies and no one questioned the mask.”
I spoke with Eddie Pratt, PGA golf professional and director of Golf at Sea Trail, about the dangers of playing golf.
“Roots are always a problem, particularly with some of our older courses,” he said. “Most times, the ball comes straight up and hits the golfer in the face. It’s rare that a club will bend like Larry’s did,” Pratt said.
“Roots can be present anytime, even in the fairway, and it’s best to closely check the ground before striking the ball. If there’s a substantial root near your ball, it may be best to declare an unplayable lie or just chip it out without taking a full swing.”
Rory McIlroy hit a root on the third hole of the second day of the PGA Championship in 2011. The root was visible to all, including his caddie, but he chose to hit the ball with a full swing using his 7-iron. He bent the club and injured his wrist and put himself out of contention.  He finished the four rounds with a bandage on his left wrist and higher scores than he usually shoots.
McIlroy later admitted he should have chipped into the fairway instead of going for the gusto with a visible root next to his ball.
Roots are a major problem for many of our older golf courses, where the fairways are lined with live oaks and pines. Live oaks have enormous surface roots that often spread many yards past the actual canopy of the tree. Pines have smaller surface roots, but they follow the water, and because our courses are irrigated, the surface roots will be just under the turf.  
The Rules of Golf are simple when it comes to roots. Hit the ball as it lies or declare an unplayable lie and take an extra stroke for it. If a golfer takes a drop he must do one of three options: either play a ball as nearly as possible at the spot from which the original ball was last played; or drop a ball behind the point where the ball lies, keeping that point directly between the hole and the spot on which the ball is dropped, with no limit to how far behind the point the ball may be dropped; or drop a ball within two club-lengths of the spot where the ball is, but not nearer the hole.
Some groups and associations that play on courses that have lots of roots will adopt a local root rule. Arrowhead Golf Club in Ohio posted the following root rule:
If your ball comes to rest on or dangerously close to a root, the player gets a free drop at the nearest point of relief. Relief is nearest point, not club length. The root rule only covers ball/club placement, not stance. Line of flight may not be improved.
There are huge debates at many clubs over the root rule. Some say that if a golfer gets a free lift from every root, his handicap will be unnaturally low by several strokes. They say the root rule changes the game and begs the question, what about water hazards and creeks and brick walls and bulkheads and all the improbable, terrible things that can happen to your ball?
The purists want us to play it as it lies or take our penalty.
But what if the golfer is only playing for fun? Should he risk injury? What if his course is overrun with roots? Is that fair? Won’t his handicap be unreasonable high if he must take a penalty each time his ball lands near a root?
Whatever decisions your local club or association makes, golfers need to understand that if they play in a USGA sanctioned event or a tournament at another course, the root rule is illegal. It doesn’t really exist under the Rules of Golf.  
So, don’t try taking relief from a root at your brother-in-law’s member-guest or at the local qualifier for the state amateur.

Golf Gab groaners
They call it golf because all the other four-letter words are taken (Raymond Floyd).
Golf is a game in which one endeavors to control a ball with implements ill-adapted for the purpose (Woodrow Wilson).