Nathan Smith looks over at his partner, Todd White. The two exchange glances and White nods his head. “Pick it up,” Smith says to their opponent Stephen Anderson. “That’s good.”
Smith has just conceded a short par putt to Anderson during the Round of 32 in the 2015 U.S. Amateur Four-Ball Championship at the Olympic Club. It’s a common practice for recreational golfers playing a friendly weekend match – or top amateurs playing in a national championship. It can help improve pace of play and is considered a courtesy for a putt that an opponent will almost certainly make.
With the USGA hosting its inaugural Four-Ball championships this month, we dug into the archives to find out more about the origins of the practice of conceding putts and the debate that has surrounded it throughout its history.
The phrase itself, “concede putts,” was first mentioned in the Rules of Golf in 1909. Interestingly, the USGA was strongly against it. The section Special Rules for Match Play Competitions reads, “The Rules of Golf Committee recommends that players should not concede putts to their opponents.” This was mentioned in each subsequent Rules book until 1933.
At one point, conceding a putt was used as a way to play around the “stymie rule,” which was in existence until 1952. On September 1, 1920, the USGA added a provision that allowed the stymied player to concede his opponent’s next putt, and it was incorporated into the 1921 Rules of Golf: “If the opponent lay the player a stymie, the player may remove the opponent’s ball; the opponent shall then be deemed to have holed in his next stroke.”
More than a decade before, the December 1909 issue of the USGA Golf Bulletin featured two articles on the practice of conceding putts. Horace F. Smith, president of the Southern Golf Association, wrote that conceding putts was newly popular among golfers attempting to show good sportsmanship:
“Custom has created a sentiment favoring such concessions among enthusiastic golfers, courteous and chivalrous young men who delight in fair play and the observance of generous liberality towards an opponent.”
H.S.C. Everard added that golfers were becoming so comfortable with the custom that they were incredulous when the courtesy was not evoked:
“Some men feel preternaturally aggrieved when asked to hole out a short putt; it should be scarcely necessary to say that they have absolutely no grounds whatever for annoyance at such a request. … In ‘serious golf’ the reply should be the courteous one: ‘Putt it out, mine enemie.’”
In the 1920s, conceding putts was still a hotly debated issue on both sides of the Atlantic. In the July 1927 issue of Golf Illustrated, William Henry Beers blamed “generous British golfers” for the custom’s introduction to the game, arguing that it cheated players of valuable practice and brought to light the differences in British and American opinions on the topic.
“American golfers have been criticized for holing out in all matches, which is done for the practice thus gained, and to keep accurate scores for club handicaps. For doing this, American players have been accused of ‘being passionately fond of keeping scores’ and delaying the progress of the players behind by holing out. There is no golf player in the world today who is so good on the putting green that he can afford to lose a large percentage of putting practice that he is deprived of with an opponent who picks up his ball whenever he pleases, or knocks his opponent’s ball away from the hole and concedes the putt.”
British writer and GB&I Walker Cupper Bernard Darwin felt differently. Darwin contended that “the holing out of putts which cannot affect a match, but which are holed purely for private satisfaction, is ‘frankly a bore.’” According to Darwin, “Americans make a fetish of keeping individual scores. This insistence upon scribbling little figures on a card is not only a waste of time but actually defeats the sporting spirit which is a fundamental principle of match play.”
Golf Illustrated writer George Trevor vehemently opposed Darwin’s views. He described the American practice of always holing out a result of values integral to American culture, writing:
“This American insistence on keeping personal scores is basically sound as well as satisfying to the soul. It is the cornerstone upon which our national golf progress is founded, making, as it does, for the precision of play rather than sloppy, slipshod habits. The American feels that anything worth doing at all is worth doing well. Holing out putts breeds confidence and puts the stamp of finality on a man’s game. Not holing out cultivates a sloppy mental attitude.”
He finished the article by discussing the special importance of holing out in match play and the inner debate that players face when determining whether or not a putt should be conceded:
“Refusal to concede a three-footer may be constructed as poor sportsmanship. It doesn’t seem right to burden a contestant with such a delicate decision. A sensitive golfer fears to be pilloried as a poor sport. He will lean over backwards in conceding missable putts rather than have his sportsmanship questioned. Conceding putts may relieve course congestion and speed up play, but it also takes the joy out of life for the typical American golfer.”
Over the past century, stances have softened on the acceptability of conceding putts. In perhaps the most visible display of this, Jack Nicklaus conceded a two-foot par putt to Tony Jacklin in the 1969 Ryder Cup, creating the first tie in the event’s history. (The United States retained the Cup). Others use the gesture as a form of gamesmanship, conceding putts to an opponent early in the round, only to make him putt similar-length putts near the conclusion of the match.
“Our strategy could definitely change later in the round,” said Smith, who after he and White closed out their opponents, 5 and 3, is looking forward to the next round of the U.S. Amateur Four-Ball. “It all depends on the situation and the difficulty of the putt. I think we all feel our nerves in a close match. And that “circle of friendship” may just tighten up a little bit.”