When is a Gimme, a Gimme?

AUSTIN, TEXAS - MARCH 26: Kevin Na of the United States fist bumps Dustin Johnson of the United States after winning their match during the third round of the World Golf Championships-Dell Technologies Match Play at Austin Country Club on March 26, 2021 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
AUSTIN, TEXAS - MARCH 26: Kevin Na of the United States fist bumps Dustin Johnson of the United States after winning their match during the third round of the World Golf Championships-Dell Technologies Match Play at Austin Country Club on March 26, 2021 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images) /

What defines a Gimme?

This weekend Kevin Na and Dustin Johnson had an uncomfortable moment during the WGC Match Play in Austin, Texas. The issue arose when Dustin swept his 10” inch putt before Kevin Na gave it to him. That’s a big no-no.

The rules for official match play are perfectly clear.

“You may concede your opponent’s next stroke, a hole or the match, but a concession is only made when it is clearly communicated.”

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To be clear, Na said he was going to concede the putt. It wasn’t that Dustin was maliciously trying to take it. We all know Dustin is probably never going to miss that putt. His mistake was in scooping it up before Na verbally gave it to him.

That’s where the “Gentleman’s Game” comes into play. In professional match play golf there is no gimme. A shot, hole, or match can be conceded, but you can never take it on your own volition.

It’s very straightforward and easy to understand. DJ, if you can believe it, just wasn’t thinking. Na was right to bring it to his attention.

The problem likely arose because every golfer breaks the rules and interprets them differently in friendly, non-competitive rounds.

Yesterday, in my friendly foursome, I’d estimate someone kicked, putted, picked up, or scraped putts on every hole. I, myself, recall a questionable quick-rake on #7 that prevented me from a possible 4-putt. (Sorry, boys.)

No one objected. I made the backhanded rake while the ball was still rolling, and we all moved on. This stuff happens with your friends and usually you can laugh about it. If we’d all had been playing by the strict rules of golf, someone would have had to forfeit on every hole.

Now many of you, and I count myself in this group, thought Kevin Na was being a bit of a jerk when he called DJ out. Na explained that he was happy to give the putt, but DJ had to wait until he actually, you know, gave it.

That’s not an unreasonable position. It turns out that a number of other Pros agree with Na.

So while sanctioned match play events have rules that are clear as a bell, what is the best practice in your weekend game?

The short answer is that it’s complicated and there are multiple mitigating factors. The best you can hope for is creating a liberal conformity with which everyone can get on board.

Here are some guidelines that might work for you.

If you have to ask, it’s not a gimme.

If no one says anything, you need to putt it. If you have to ask, you need to putt it.

The corollary to this rule is that you should never ask for a gimme. That’s a sure fire way to tell your opponent that you hate short putts. You don’t want your opponent knowing that about you.

Different players have different gimme lengths.

Yes, this is grossly unfair. But as someone who is on the bad side of the equation, I get it.

Watching me stand over a 3-footer is akin to watching the first lunar landing – fascination, fear, excitement of the unknown, potential for disaster, and hope for humanity are all on display.

I don’t get that putt often and I shouldn’t. I’ve trained myself to just assume I need to putt the short ones. It actually takes some of the fear out because I don’t get my hopes of a gimme up, only to see them dashed in deafening silence. I need to putt better to earn those short gimmes.

My friend who is a 2-handicapper gets lots of liberal gimmes. He’s earned it. The other guy who already has four three-putts on the front nine is less likely to get the benefit of the doubt. Life’s unfair, what else can you say?

You can’t give your partner a gimme.

If you are playing a Nassau and your partner has a two-foot putt to win the match, you can’t give it to him. Ever. That is akin to stealing. And even if the other team has given them all day, don’t expect them to give it in that situation. This leads to the next unwritten rule.

All gimmes are not equal

Depending on the players in your group, the bet in the match, and the difficulty of the green, a two-foot gimme is not automatic.

Do you want to be liberal with gimmes when playing with your future father-in-law the first time? Yes. Yes, you do. The same goes for your boss, your clients, and your best friends when the bets are small.

Is that same length putt good at the Member-Guest tournament when your arch-enemy has a sliding downhill two-footer to halve a hole? No. No, it’s not.

This can be a tough one to interpret. There will be uncomfortable situations caused by this little wrinkle in gimme protocol. No pressure. Just know that your reputation as a decent human being hangs in the balance.

Avoid all issues by playing to the bottom

I have a golf trip where we have to putt everything to the bottom of the cup. There are no gimmes – ever. If your ball is hanging on the lip, you need to go tap it in.

Is this silly? Sure. Does it avoid awkward moments? Yes, and that’s the point. On a trip where there is considerable money at stake, this rule is a good thing.

I’ve seen putts missed from inside a foot. It happens. When everyone knows you have to putt to the bottom of the cup, no one feels badly except the guy who missed it. That’s the way golf should be.

Some people hate gimmes

Hear me out. If you play with someone who gives everything inside four feet, you will quickly discover you start scoring really well. You feel good. The guy giving putts feels like Santa Claus. It makes for a stress-free round.

Then you put your score in, your handicap drops two points, and pretty soon you look like a jerk who carries a vanity handicap.

It’s perfectly legitimate to decline a gimme. You simply say, “I need to putt this for my handicap. I appreciate it, but I want to be fair to myself.”

No one will ever hold that against you unless you start missing 6” inch putts to bloat your handicap. That’s sandbagging. That is the worst thing you can be as a golfer. Don’t be that guy.

If you are given a four-footer, insist on putting it, and miss – that’s OK. Your friend feels good for offering, you feel good for being honest, and the sting of missing a real putt is dampened by the mutual good-faith conduct.

If all else fails, use your putter as a measuring stick

If there is a sense that some players in your group give tons of gimmes and others are more stingy, pick a guy in your foursome and use his putter as the gimme-measurement stick.

Most putters are about 34” inches. If you place the head of the putter in the hole and lay it flat on the green it will stretch out to roughly 30” inches.

A putt inside 2.5 feet is a fairly agreeable gimme length and you can use that system the entire round. If a ball is past the end of the putter, you have to hit it, no questions asked.

This may seem a little silly, but by taking the human element out of the decision process, there will be no hurt feelings.

The gimme is a gift

The gimme is, at its best, a delightful social transaction. It’s a gift. It’s an acknowledgement of the other player’s skill. It’s a show of respect.

For the receiver it’s a sense of accomplishment. You’ve hit a shot so good that the next one is awarded in recognition. Even on short putts, knowing that, “The next one is good”, can take pressure off.

Some use the gimme to set up a tense moment later in the match by giving putts early in the round then making the player putt the short ones in crunch time.

Golfers call this “gamesmanship”.

I think it’s a little cheeky. If someone does this to you, simply tell them that you’d like to play to the bottom of the cup all day. That will turn the unease back on them by showing them you know what they’re doing. A just reward for their attempt to unnerve you.

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This also illustrates why the best use of the gimme is as a reward. It should be a positive interaction between golfers. It shouldn’t be a tool used to unsettle your opponent or patronize a less skilled golfer.

Just be careful with the gimme. It’s a fragile part of golfing etiquette. If you start sweeping 3-footers, your friends might be too nice to say anything, but it will grind their gears. Never take a gimme longer than one you’d give to an opponent to win a match. Follow that rule and you’ll never get in trouble.