The 'gimme' still remains in play at Ryder Cup

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Golf's Rule 2-4 seems simple enough: "A player may concede his opponent's next stroke at any time." It means one player can tell another to simply pick up his ball, add a stroke to his score and proceed to the next hole.

Golfers call it a "gimme" -- a friendly way to let a fellow golfer forgo a putt he presumably would make anyway. It is one of the many polite peculiarities golf prides itself on as a gentleman's game. As it turns out, though, gimmes are hardly simple and sometimes not so gentlemanly.

No other major sport has anything like gimmes. Football teams don't concede touchdowns when their opponents are inches from the end zone. A baseball pitcher who wants to intentionally walk a batter can't simply give him first base; he has to actually throw four bad pitches. Gimmes aren't even allowed in most professional golf tournaments, where every stroke must be played and counted. They mostly are used by rank amateurs out for a weekend round with their pals.

But gimmes will be very much in play starting Friday at the 36th Ryder Cup in County Kildare, Ireland. The high-pressure, three-day event pits top golfers from Europe and the U.S. against one another in a "match play" format. In match play, total stroke-by-stroke scores aren't kept. Instead, golfers compete hole-by-hole. Thus, the golfer with the lower score on a particular hole wins that hole, and the number of holes won and lost are added up to determine the winner of the match.

So if Tiger Woods were to hit a ball to six inches from the hole, his European opponent would probably say, "Pick it up, Tiger, that's good," for a gimme. Mr. Woods would then pick up his ball, while the opponent tried to better or equal Mr. Woods' score. The pair then would start anew at the next tee.

The gimme has a past shrouded in vagueness. Kenneth G. Chapman, a golf historian living in Finland, says the rules' first mentions of gimmes "were very mysterious," merely implying that players could concede strokes without setting specific do's and don'ts. In his 1997 book "The Rules of the Green," Mr. Chapman wrote that conceding putts "was so basic that it never seemed necessary to state it."

Under the 1882 rules, players were allowed to knock away an opponent's ball, but only from the "lip of the hole." Golfers often were "stymied" when an opponent's ball rolled up and stopped between their ball and the hole, and they had to pop their ball over or try a croquet-style bank shot to reach the hole. Stymies, used only in match play, were declared anachronistic in 1952, as the modern era's count-every-shot tournaments took precedence.

The rules have never required a golfer to offer a gimme. A generous player might tell his opponent to pick up a 10-foot putt, or a stingy one could refuse to concede a two-incher. The late Sam Snead, a golfing legend with a record 82 PGA Tour victories in his career, used to say, "Keep close count of your nickels and dimes, stay away from whiskey, and never concede a putt."

Walter Hagen had a more nuanced -- some would some say diabolical -- view. The late Mr. Hagen won the Professional Golfers' Association Championship five times in the 1920s when it was a match-play contest. He was famous for conceding putts early in a match, then turning around and forcing out-of-rhythm opponents to make short but challenging putts on late holes when the match was on the line.

In the second round of the 1990 U.S. Amateur, Phil Mickelson was on the first green, four feet from the cup, in just two strokes. His opponent, Jeff Thomas, was 25 feet away in three. All Mr. Mickelson needed to do was let Mr. Thomas miss his long putt and Mr. Mickelson could have won the hole with ease. Incredibly, he conceded the 25-footer, giving Mr. Thomas a score of four.

Mr. Mickelson then had to make his putt to win the hole. Fortunately for him, he did, on the way to routing Mr. Thomas in the match. Mr. Mickelson told reporters, "I wanted to put some pressure on myself."

Jon Stabler, owner and co-founder of GolfPsych, a Boerne, Texas, school that teaches the mental aspects of golf, says a golfer competing against a nervous opponent should "make him putt everything -- even six inches." Or, if the opponent isn't all that nervous, Mr. Stabler says, vary the gimmes offered throughout a match.

"Make him putt a two-footer, then give him a four-footer, then make him putt a one-and-a-half-footer," he says. "Confuse the guy."

Then again, he adds, with some golfers, "it won't make any difference, and you'll spend time thinking about it," instead of focusing on simply playing well.

During a round between average golfers, a gimme can have other purposes than competition. Joe Lance, an Illinois amateur and vice president at logistics-management company ALG Worldwide Logistics, lists some familiar gimmes. There are friendly "no worries, pick it up" gimmes, the "hurry-up-we're-a-hole-behind" gimme, and the commonly used "force gimme." Mr. Lance says that last one is afforded to customers, bosses and business prospects who could ultimately bring the gimme-giver more business success -- leading to more time for golf.

Peter Post, great-grandson of etiquette authority Emily Post and director of the Emily Post Institute in Burlington, Vt., says conceding putts often has more to do with personal relationships than with golf. Much as in the days before rules were set by national bodies, regular foursomes devise their own rules to suit themselves. Mr. Post said he plays golf with a man whose "hard and fast rule is no four-putts" -- meaning no more than three putts on a given green -- because "that would be unbearably unpleasant...and who wants to play golf then?"

When playing with, say, a future father-in-law for the first time, Mr. Post says it is wise to offer a gimme "circumspectly," because the man might actually want to putt everything. "If you simply say, 'That's good,' well, maybe he wants to putt everything out and that's a stroke against you ... pardon my pun."

Golf's most famous concession came at the 1969 Ryder Cup at the Royal Birkdale Golf Club in Southport, England. The event came down to the final hole between Jack Nicklaus of the heavily favored U.S. team and England's Tony Jacklin. Mr. Nicklaus finished the hole with a four. Mr. Jacklin had to make a nerve-racking two-foot putt or lose the match in front of thousands of his countrymen.

Before Mr. Jacklin could putt, Mr. Nicklaus, who was competing in his first Ryder Cup, reached down and snatched up the Englishman's ball marker -- signifying a gimme. "I don't think you would have missed that putt ... but in these circumstances I would never give you the opportunity," he told Mr. Jacklin, according to Colin M. Jarman's book "The Ryder Cup."

The match therefore ended in a tie, which meant the defending champion Americans retained the trophy. Mr. Nicklaus's sportsmanlike gesture nevertheless steamed the U.S. team captain, who happened to be the gimme-loathing Mr. Snead.


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