Hating Golf’s Out-of-Bounds Rule Has a Long History

The penalty for losing a ball or hitting it out of bounds is “stroke and distance”: if your first shot vanishes or ends up on the wrong side of the white stakes, you count that stroke (one), add a penalty stroke (two), and hit again from the original spot (three).

Many average golfers either don’t understand that rule or refuse to observe it. They “drop one” on the course near the spot where they figure their first shot disappeared, add a stroke, and play from there.

Stroke and distance was part of golf’s original list of rules, in 1744, but during subsequent decades and centuries it was repeatedly modified, dropped, resurrected, and modified again. Sometimes you counted only the bad stroke and the do-over; sometimes you added a penalty but got a drop. The most severe version was adopted by the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews in 1842: three strokes and distance, meaning that if you hit a ball out of bounds your next stroke, played from the spot where you struck your first, counted as your fifth. That lasted until 1846.

In 1951, the R & A and the USGA agreed to apply the single-stroke-and-distance penalty universally. But there was still plenty of grumbling, and in 1959 the Southern California Golf Association, with the support of 90 per cent of its members, adopted a local rule eliminating what it described as the “unfair penalty stroke in connection with ball out of bounds, lost ball and unplayable lie.” Thenceforth, in Southern California, if you did something stupid the assessment was “stroke only.” You counted the bad shot and the replay (from the original spot), but nothing in between.

The California revolt had some prominent supporters—among them Gene Sarazen, who told Golf Digest, “Golf is a game of luck. The stroke and distance penalty gives luck extra value. A guy gets into trouble at the wrong time or on the wrong hole and it is the equivalent of two strokes added to his card. The population is growing and taking up more space, so out-of-bounds holes are increasing. The double penalty rule is entirely unnecessary.”

The USGA relented for a year, in 1960, but the stroke-only faction ultimately lost out, and the current rule, with minor tinkering, has been in place all over the world since 1968. But who knows? Maybe the governing bodies will come around to Sarazen’s point of view.


Masters Countdown: Why did Gene Sarazen Skip the First Masters?


Gene Sarazen hit “the shot heard round the world”—his epochal double-eagle on Augusta’s fifteenth hole—in 1935, during the final round of the second Augusta National Invitation Tournament (as the Masters was officially known until 1939). He hadn’t played the year before. Why?

Sarazen swing

Sarazen himself often said, years later, that he skipped the first Masters because the invitation came from Clifford Roberts, the club’s co-founder and chairman, “and what the hell do I want to play in a tournament sponsored by a Wall Street broker?”—as he told me in a telephone interview in 1997. He also said that he threw out the first invitation because it had a Wall Street return address, and he figured it must be some kind of financial promotion.

Funny stories—but they aren’t true. His invitation came not from Roberts but from Alfred Bourne, who was the club’s vice president and principal financial backer, and Sarazen responded in February with a nice letter in which he told Bourne that he was “very glad to accept.” He backed out shortly before the tournament, though, because he realized that he had a conflicting commitment with Joe Kirkwood, an Australian professional and trick-shot expert (who had also been invited).

Sarazen and Kirkwood worked during the winter for the Miami Biltmore Hotel. Kirkwood had once proposed to Sarazen that they travel abroad together, and Sarazen had suggested South America. Kirkwood, unbeknownst to Sarazen, had scheduled their departure for late March, a week before the tournament, and their plans could not be changed. Sarazen, at the time, deeply regretted missing the first Masters. He said that a caddie in Fiji (on a different trip, presumably) told him, “We no hear of Mister Sarazen in Fiji, but we hear of Mister Jones.” He made certain that he would be available for the second Masters—which he won, in a playoff with Craig Wood.

The Masters wasn't officially called the Masters until 1939, but many players, sportswriters, and others used that name (which Jones considered presumptuous) from the beginning.

The Masters wasn’t officially called the Masters until 1939, but many players, sportswriters, and others used that name (which Jones considered presumptuous) from the beginning.

Masters Week Obituary

Photo: Augusta Chronicle.

Photo: Augusta Chronicle.

One of the best things about working on my book The Making of the Masters was getting to know Kathryn Murphy, shown in her home in the photo above. She first worked on the tournament, as a secretary, in 1962, and she became an indispensable assistant to Clifford Roberts, Augusta National’s co-founder and the tournament’s original chairman. She knew an extraordinary number of Masters facts, and if I suddenly wondered about something truly obscure, such as who had teed off fourth in the sixth Masters, she knew exactly where to look it up. She loved the tournament, and she loved the club, and neither would have been the same without her.

Murphy had many opportunities to observe Roberts. She told me that she would sometimes find him hunched over his desk on autumn afternoons, working in the gloom. She would flick on the lights, and he would straighten up in his chair but show no other sign of having noticed the change. She always kept a stenographer’s pad next to the phone by her bed at home, because there was no telling at what hour he might call to dictate a letter.

Among her many contributions to my book was her insider’s perspective on the conclusion of the 1968 Masters, when Roberto de Vicenzo signed his scorecard for one stroke more than he had actually shot, and was kept out of a playoff with Bob Goalby. A few sportswriters and others have alleged that Roberts must not have wanted a foreigner to win, and had therefore made a ruling that gave the green jacket to an American. But the ruling was the only one possible under the Rules of Golf at that time, and it was made not by Roberts but by the tournament’s chief rules official, Isaac Grainger, who was a past president of the U.S.G.A.

Furthermore, as Murphy told me, the idea that Roberts had been out to get de Vicenzo was absurd, since it was partly at Roberts’s urging that he had come to play in the Masters in the first place, in 1950. (That year, his manager wrote to accept his invitation to compete in “the Annual Teacher’s Competition” — a mistaken retranslation from a Spanish version of the invitation.) The two men were close friends, Murphy said, and de Vicenzo and his wife often spent Masters week in the home of Wilda Gwin, who was another of Roberts’s secretaries. De Vicenzo’s birthday fell on Masters Sunday in 1968, and the tournament staff, with Roberts’s assistance, planned a surprise party for him. Murphy told me that she remembered sadly throwing away the birthday cake when it became clear that holding the party would now be impossible.

Roberts always held a dinner for the tournament winner at the end of each Masters, and Murphy told me that that night he broke convention by inviting de Vicenzo to attend as well.  She said that Roberts worried that the outcome had harmed both men—by depriving de Vicenzo of a shot at the financial bonanza that followed a Masters win and by overshadowing the spectacular charge that Goalby had made in his own final round. Like all Masters winners, Goalby received a silver cigarette case on which had been engraved the signatures of all the players in the field. Murphy said that Roberts quietly had an identical box made for de Vicenzo, as a private acknowledgment of his ordeal, and that he asked J. Richard Ryan, the attorney who handled the club’s television and movie contracts, to offer his services to both men as an agent—an occupation that had just begun to have an impact among the better players on tour. He especially hoped that Ryan could help de Vicenzo make up for opportunities he had foregone.

This year, Murphy visited the club twice during Masters Week, spent time with her family, including a great-grandson, and threw a weekend Masters party. She watched the final round on TV, and was delighted when Adam Scott won. About two hours later, she died, at the age of eighty-one.

Kathryn Murphy and Gene Sarazen. Photo: Augusta Chronicle.

Kathryn Murphy and Gene Sarazen. Photo: Augusta Chronicle.


18 Good Things About Golf: No. 7

Strokes: member-guest, 2011.

7. Golf, like all sports, is perfectly meritocratic: If you shoot the best score, you win. At the same time, though, golf is highly socialistic. In fact, it’s the world’s only welfare state that works. The U.S.G.A.’s handicapping system takes strokes from each according his ability and gives them to each according to his need—communism with a human face. Unlike raw capitalism, golf has figured out how to foster individual achievement without smothering the hopes of those who can’t keep up. Like most golfers, I am proud to give strokes yet unashamed to receive them.

Because of handicaps, competitive matches can be played by players of greatly different levels of skill. If Rory McIlroy, for some reason, could find no one else to play with, he could play with me and, after spotting me one or two dozen strokes, still hope to have an interesting contest. Golf is the only sport I know of in which direct competition between pros and amateurs, or between men and women, or between adults and children, or between young women and old men, or between old women and touring professionals, is routinely feasible. The use of different tees makes it possible to adapt the course to the abilities of the players, and the handicapping system allows further adjustments. As a result, you can play golf on an equal footing not only with your wife but also with your kids or grandkids. Thus, golf simultaneously enhances sexual parity (important to liberals) and traditional family values (ditto to conservatives).

You’d think that a system designed to facilitate gambling among strangers would be fatally vulnerable to inconsistencies and abuses. In fact, though, the handicapping system, like the post office, works better than we have any right to expect. I often play nassaus with people I don’t know—people whose ideas about reportable scores may differ wildly from my own—and yet, far more often than the laws of probability would predict, our matches come down to the final press or the final hole or the final putt. How does that happen?

The explanation, I believe, is that human nature makes the handicap system almost magically self-correcting. A golfer with a pop has a mindset different from that of a golfer playing naked. Players with too many strokes inevitably find ways to waste them, and players with too few are often inspired to shoot better than they know how. (Ben Hogan—or was it Sam Snead?—once played a match with an amateur who complained that he wasn’t receiving enough strokes, and Snead—or was it Gene Sarazen?—replied, “Then you’re just going to have to play harder.”) Every club has its sandbaggers, chiselers, pretenders, and poseurs, but, over the course of a season or two, the bets tend to even out. One way or another, most of us manage to live up or down to our innermost expectations.

Masters Countdown: Second Hole

Augusta National's second green in 1935, when it had just one bunker.

During Augusta National’s early years, in the 1930s, the second hole had a vast, ragged bunker in the fairway, not far from the tee. A more subdued version of that bunker survived into the mid-sixties, when Clifford Roberts, the club’s chairman and co-founder, replaced it with a smaller bunker farther down the fairway and to the right. “The players all complained when Roberts put it in,” Gene Sarazen, who suggested the change, told me in the late 1990s. “But it didn’t mean a thing when you complained to Roberts. He had his own mind made up.” Among the players who complained was Ben Hogan, whose fade made the sand a genuine annoyance. Sam Snead told me, “Hogan said the bunker should have been placed on the other side, so you couldn’t cut the corner.” But the left side of the fairway was already well guarded, as it is today, by a grove of pines and a deep ravine with a creek at the bottom of it—one of the few spots on the course where a player can hit a truly unrecoverable drive. Gardner Dickinson once suggested that the tournament’s airline office—a Roberts innovation, which enables players and tournament spectators to make last-minute changes in their travel plans without leaving the property—should be moved into the ravine, on the theory that any player unfortunate enough to hit his tee shot down there might as well book a flight and go home. In recent years, the carry from the tournament tee to the fairway bunker has been stretched to more than 300 yards, but some players are able to hit their drives right past it. And hardly anybody employs Hogan’s second-hole strategy: intentionally hitting his second shot into a greenside bunker and trying to get up and down for birdie from there.

The second green in 1948: two greenside bunkers with a broad gap between them.