Do the Rules of Golf Violate the Rules of Golf?

Not long ago, I played in an inter-club tournament on a nine-hole course in the northern part of my state. The club has two features I like a lot (in addition to the course): a curling club next door, and my favorite kind of driving range:

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On one hole during the tournament, I lipped out a par putt, leaving a tap-in for bogey. I tapped it, but it didn’t go in. The head of my putter looks like this:

I had struck the ball with what I guess would be considered the putter’s “toe,” and the wingy thing made it squirt off at a weird angle, and I ended up with a double bogey. I told my pro later that, at least, I knew I’d never make THAT mistake again, but he said that, based on his own experience, I was probably safe for only about five years.

Later, I got to wondering: was my stupid muffed tap-in even legal? And that made me think of Bill Collins, a reader in Scotland, who has written to me several times to complain about what he believes to be a serious inconsistency in the Rules of Golf. Bill is eighty years old. He lives in Edinburgh with his wife, Mary, and he plays two or three times a week, all year long, at Silverknowes Golf Club, which has swell views of the Firth of Forth and beyond:

“I served an apprenticeship in a shipyard in Leith on the River Forth and have been in engineering most of my working life,” he told me in an email. “For the last 15 years of my career, I was offered a position in quality control, because of my engineering background, and was quite happy to put down my tools. I picked up a lot of information on specifications and their importance in maintaining procedures. That is why I can’t get Rule 4 and Rule 14 out of my head. They are not compatible.” Here’s another look at Silverknowes:

Collins’s concerns first arose during the 1996 Open, at Royal Lytham & St. Annes (won by Tom Lehman). “During the tournament, it was indicated by a well-known golfer and what I took to be a representative of the R&A that one could strike a ball with the face, back, heel or toe of a putter. I phoned the R&A and the BBC reps at the Lytham course, and I managed to reach the R&A desk. My message was accepted by a lady, but I received no reply from the BBC, and no reply from the R&A.”

His question was prompted by what was then part of Rule 4.1, governing the form and make of clubs (the text now appears in Appendix II)—”The clubhead shall have only one striking face, except that a putter may have two such faces if their characteristics are the same, and they are opposite each other”—and what seemed to him to be a conflict between those requirements and Rule 14.1: “The ball must be fairly struck at with the head of the club and must not be pushed, scraped or spooned.” Collins continued, “Over the past 20 years, I have allowed the above to take over large amounts of my time trying to convince people. From reading magazines and listening to comments, I know there are lots of golfers who agree with me. What convinces me even more is the lack of response to my enquiries. I have been informed by the R&A, but not convinced, that one may strike a ball with the face, back, heel or toe of a putter.”

If a putter may have only two striking faces, why are you allowed to strike a ball with a third? Furthermore, Collins wrote, “Take a moment on the green, if you have a Ping-type putter—and, if not, borrow one—and scoop up the ball. Just before you flick it up into your hand, look at the ball nestling in the back of the putter. What do you see? You see a ball resting between two striking faces. Nice way to pitch. Is it legal? Rule 14.1 says yes; Rule 4.1/Appendix II says no.”

On the other hand, pondering the Rules of Golf can send your brain into a tailspin. I once saw someone — Chi-Chi Rodriguez?—successfully extract an embedded ball from the wall of a bunker by fiercely striking the sand just below the ball with the toe of his putter, as though he were swinging an ax. In effect, he used the putter head as wedge, compressing the sand and causing the ball to squirt onto the green. Cool shot! But should it be legal? For that matter, is the ball “fairly struck at” in ANY bunker shot, since when you play the shot what you are actually striking at is sand?

Three non-conforming putters, from the Rules of Golf.

I haven’t done full justice to Collins’s argument, but I’m afraid that if I do I’ll spend the next 20 years brooding about it, too. If you want to pursue this with Collins himself, get in touch with me the way he did, through the link below, and if you don’t seem too much like a nut I’ll forward your email to him. Curling season is almost here, and that means we’ll soon have lots of time for idle cogitation. Now, about the out-of-bounds rule. . . .

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).
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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.

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World’s Best Golf-Based Bathroom Reading

A recent study proved something that most of us either knew already or could have figured out: people who have smartphones spend more time on the toilet than people who don’t. Not long ago, I discovered another bathroom-stay-prolonger: the latest edition of “Decisions on the Rules of Golf,” a heavily annotated version of golf’s rule book, published every other year, in which the U.S. Golf Association and the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews attempt to “clarify matters that may not be entirely clear” from the rules themselves, based on issues they’ve adjudicated for golfers and rules officials.

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For example: “Is a worm, when half on top of the surface of the ground and half below, a loose impediment which may be removed? Or is it fixed and solidly embedded and therefore not a loose impediment.” Answer: It’s a loose impediment, and you may remove it. (Decision 23/8) 

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Reading “Decisions” makes you appreciate the challenge that rules officials face. It also painlessly increases your knowledge of the rules while providing an agreeable exercise in schadenfreude: “After a player putts, the flagstick attendant removes the flagstick and a knob attached to the top of the flagstick falls off. The knob strikes the player’s moving ball and deflects it. What is the ruling?” 

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You can easily picture the situation: the clumsy moron tending the flag; the brilliant 50-foot putt that would have dropped if the detached knob hadn’t struck it; the ensuing screams. And the answer is that the knob, once it broke off, became an outside agency rather than a part of the flagstick, so the player incurred no penalty under Rule 17-3a. Instead, “the stroke is canceled and the ball must be replaced.” (Decision 17/9)

Here’s one more: “A player misses a shot completely and, in swinging his club back, he accidentally knocks his ball backwards. . . . If the ball comes to rest out of bounds, how does the player proceed?”

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The answer is in Decision 18-2a/22, but you’ll have to look it up yourself. You can do that by ordering a spiral-bound paper copy for your own bathroom, or by consulting the online (and easily searchable) version of the “Rules and Decisions,” on the U.S.G.A.’s website.

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Five Rules of Golf That My Friends and I Got Wrong on Our Recent Buddies Trip

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According to a veteran sportswriter I know, there are three lethally boring topics in golf: junior golf, the rules of golf, and I forget the third. But I think the rules are interesting, in part because they constitute a legal system that attempts to provide a specific remedy for every conceivable situation, leaving essentially no role for “discretion.” And, although I usually believe I know the rules better than the average casual player (which isn’t saying much), I often encounter surprises.

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On our recent golf trip to Scotland and Ireland, my friends and I got many rules wrong, undoubtedly, but five of our errors, in particular, stand out—and four of them were made by players with single-digit handicaps. First, one of mine:

1. At a golf school I attended in the early 1990s, one of the instructors hit several gorgeous bunker shots after turning his sand wedge backward, but then told us, “Unfortunately, hitting the ball with the back of the club is illegal.” I cited him on the trip as my authority (in a situation I’ve forgotten)—and I was wrong. If hitting the ball with the back of the club was illegal 20 years ago, it’s not illegal now. Decision 14-1/1 says:

A player may play a stroke with any part of the clubhead, provided the ball is fairly struck at (Rule 14-1) and the club conforms with Rule 4-1.

2. There were twelve guys on our trip, divided into two teams of six. Each of our morning rounds was a four-ball match in which a pair from one team played a pair from the other team.

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On one green, my partner’s ball was farthest from the hole, but I putted first—and made the putt, annoying one of our opponents, who was farther from the hole than I was. He felt that I had illegally pressured him by playing out of turn. But he was wrong. Because my partner was farthest from the hole, either he or I could putt first. Rule 30-3b says:

Balls belonging to the same side may be played in the order the side considers best.

(Because this was match play, if I really had played out of turn an opponent could have required me to replay my shot at the right time. In stroke play, the farthest player is also supposed to play first, but there’s no penalty if someone screws up. For a good explanation of the differences between match play and stroke play, go here.)

3. On another hole, a player accidentally struck his ball with a practice swing, and said there was no penalty because he hadn’t made a stroke. He was right about the stroke but wrong about the penalty. Decision 18-2a/20 says:

Q. A player makes a practice swing and accidentally moves his ball in play with his club. Has he made a stroke?

A. No. He had no intention of moving the ball – see Definition of “Stroke.”  However, he incurs a penalty stroke under Rule 18-2a for moving his ball in play, and the ball must be replaced.

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4. On a par 5, one player hit a long second shot into thick rough and couldn’t find it. So he dropped another ball approximately where he figured the first one must have ended up, and played from there. I assumed he was just playing along for fun, but he believed that he was still in the hole, and he explained that he had added a stroke for losing his ball. But he was wrong. His only legal recourse would have been to return as near as possible to the spot where he’d hit his second shot, and play another ball from there, at a penalty of “stroke and distance”—or two shots. And if he lost that ball, too, he’d have to do it again, same deal.

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5. Everybody on the trip knew that there was a penalty for hitting a wrong ball, but no one was sure exactly what it was, especially in four-ball match play. Now we know. Rule 30-3c says:

If a player incurs the loss of hole penalty under Rule 15-3a for making a stroke at a wrong ballhe is disqualified for that hole, but his partner incurs no penalty even if the wrong ball belongs to him. If the wrong ball belongs to another player, its owner must place a ball on the spot from which the wrong ball was first played.

wrong ballI could go on.

Golfers Are Morons, Experts Say

Polara Golf, a company that makes balls that go too far and wedges that are (supposedly) shank-proof, recently conducted an online survey, which found that most golfers don’t care about the Rules of Golf and therefore have no problem purchasing and playing with illegal equipment, such as the equipment that Polara Golf sells. That didn’t surprise me. What did surprise me was that, according to the survey, more than a quarter of golfers claim “to have never broken the rules during play.”

Never broken the rules? Never taken a mulligan? Never brushed a detached leaf, a grain of sand, or a loose twig while taking a back swing in a hazard? Never played by “winter rules”?  Never lifted a ball on a putting green without marking it first? Never moved a marker for another player and then forgot to move it back? Never penalized himself incorrectly or unnecessarily? Never made a suggestion to another player which could influence that player’s play (“Keep your head down, you idiot”)? Never pointed out a rules infraction by another player, then agreed to ignore it? Never played out of turn in stroke play (for which there’s no penalty or correction, although it’s still a violation of the rules)? More than a quarter of golfers???

Golf Digest conducted an experiment a few years ago in which a rules official, without saying what he was doing, observed a round of golf by four ordinary guys and kept track of their rules violations. There were so many that he almost couldn’t write fast enough to record them all.

The illustration below is from an old book about the rules. Anyone who can guess which rule it’s illustrating will win a disappointing prize. Meanwhile, anyone who feels like a rules expert should try one of the quizzes on the website of the U.S. Golf Association.

 

Memory Aid: You Moved Your Ball Marker?

Foolproof aide-mémoire, patent pending.

You mark your ball on a putting green. Your coin is in another player’s line, so he asks you to move it one putter-head length to the side. When it’s your turn to putt, you have to remember to move your coin back before replacing your ball and making your own putt, because if you don’t you incur a penalty of two strokes (in stroke play) or loss of hole (in match play).  (See Rule 20-7.)

This actually happens. At the Crowne Plaza Invitational, back in May, Zach Johnson forgot to replace his coin on the final green and incurred a two-stroke penalty for putting from the wrong place. Luckily, he had a three-stroke lead, and someone noticed the mistake before he’d signed an incorrect card.

In a local tournament many years ago, an opponent of mine moved his marker at my request, then forgot to move it back. I noticed and reminded him before he putted—and he was as astonished as if I had handed him a thousand dollars. “You’d have won the hole if you’d let me putt,” he said, suggesting that he wouldn’t have done the same for me. Who would want to win a hole that way? Him, I guess.

There’s a foolproof way to remember that you, a partner, or an opponent has moved a marker: stick a tee in your nose and leave it there until the marker is back where it began. That’s what I do, anyway. (See photo above.)

Recently, my friend Rick and I played in a state senior tournament, and my tee-in-nose trick kept us out of trouble with Rule 20-7. The course was nice, too, although its address was even better. Here’s a picture of the street sign on the corner nearest the clubhouse:

Actually, it’s kind of amazing that the sign was still there. If I’d been forty years younger, I might have swiped it myself. (No penalty under the Rules of Golf, in either stroke play or match play.) My home club is on Golf Course Rd. Here’s what our street sign looks like:

I swear I’m not the one who took it.