Thursday, April 19, 2007

The Rules of Golf in a Flat World

Wendy Uzelak represented the United States Golf Association (USGA) at the Rules of Golf Workshop that I attended this past week. She did a great job and teamed well with the Minnesota Golf Association representative, Doug Hoffman.

Wendy has an interesting blog at

Hit the ball! Don’t touch! Hit it again! Hole it!
by Charlie Leck (19 April 2007)

Golfers, [You see, this is an essay specifically for golfers. It’s not that others might not enjoy it, but they likely will not! Yet, maybe they will.]…

I have a question for you. Read it carefully and give me an answer. Send it to me by email and I’ll have a bit of a response for you.

Fred was playing the 7th hole and struck his tee ball left and into a water hazard; however, he found the ball and it was playable, but lying very close to a stake marking the boundary of the hazard. The stake caused him to play the ball at an angle he did not like. He played the ball out of the hazard, avoiding the stake. He then realized he was entitled to remove the stake because it is a movable obstruction. So, he invoked Rule 3-3, which allows a player in a situation of doubtful procedure to play a second ball, and later allow ‘the Committee’ to determine which ball would count in his score. Fred announced that he would prefer to score with the second ball if allowed to do so by the Committee. So, he removed the stake, dropped another ball in the hazard and played it. He holed out with both balls. Not counting any penalty strokes, he scored 6 with the first ball and 8 with the second. According to the rules of golf, what was Fred’s score for the hole or was he disqualified?

Now isn’t that fun? That’s the kind of stuff I was doing for this past week at a golf rules workshop put on by the Minnesota Golf Association. It’s a gas! Would you believe? People are actually addicted to this kind of stuff. Create a difficult rules situation, throw it at them and they go into an unusual and strange mode of thought. Sit around doing it for days and see what it does to your mind. For that matter, see what it does to your body?

Earlier this spring I spent four days of this intense immersion into the rules of golf at the USGA headquarters in New Jersey, I chose to sleep on the 5th day. No, no, I did not say sleep late. I did not even say sleep a good part of the day. I chose to sleep on the 5th day for I was as exhausted as Yahweh must have been on the 7th day after creating the universe.

It would seem that the game of golf ought to be simple in its rules and governance. Start a hole between two markers, hit the ball and go find it. When you find it, leave it exactly as it is and hit it again. Do this until you have struck the ball into a little, round hole that is 4¼ inches in diameter. Hole over! Count the number of times you struck the ball and that is your score for the hole!

Exactly! That is the basic, governing principle of golf. Hit the ball. Find it! Hit it again. Never touch it with your hand or anything but the head of the club as you strike it. Eventually, hole it. The rules should fit on a page. Actually, they take up about 500 pages. Why? Good question. Let me try to answer it!

The Rules of Golf are written as an aide to the player and as a guideline to make competitive play possible.

For instance, what is a player to do if he loses his ball? That question is difficult under the principles of golf that I outlined above; that is, hit your ball, go find it and hit it again. So, a rule was devised not so much to penalize a player, but to enable him, in this situation, to continue his play of the hole. Rule 27-1 says that he must go back to where he last struck the ball, drop as nearly as possible to that original spot and hit it again (if he hit it from the teeing ground, he may re-tee the ball). In fairness to his opponent, the rule also requires that the player add a stroke to his score. The concept became known as ‘stroke and distance.’

Of course, this deviation from the basic principle of golf raised lots of questions that needed to be dealt with. What, for instance, constitutes a lost ball? How does one fairly drop a ball? What does it mean to drop it as close as possible to the original place from which the player hit the previous shot? To make all of this perfectly clear the rules began to be refined by a series of ‘decisions’ that were codified and became an integral part of the rules of golf.

Who was the first player to hit a ball into a burrowing animal hole, finding himself unable to retrieve it? How does he continue under the simple, straight-forward, original principle I outlined above? He has no ball to play? He hasn’t actually lost it has he? Must he go burrowing after it, tearing up the lovely golf course as he goes? This is clearly a fellow in need of aide. And, he’s also probably a bit agitated! The rules give him that assistance without penalty. Because this is such an unusual situation, the player may drop a ball as provided in the rules for such a situation (Rule 25-1b). How many questions must have been raised by this exception to not touching one’s ball during play and substituting another ball for the original ball without penalty. Just what is a burrowing animal? What exactly is a hole made by one? What about a hole made by a non-burrowing animal, such as a dog attempting to dig up something he knows is under that turf? Lots of help was needed to make all of this clear and manageable in competitive play. The governing bodies of golf began to sculpt definitions for all these terms.

Definitions? Yes, there are more than 50 definitions of terms included in the rules of golf and they are considered a fundamental part of the rules. They provide perfectly clear answers to some of the questions I raised above.

What, for instance, is a lost ball? “A ball is deemed lost if: (a) It is not found or identified as his by the player within five minutes after the player’s side or his or their caddies have begun to search for it; or (b) The player has made a stroke at a substituted ball; or (c) The player has made a stroke at a provisional ball from the place where the original ball is likely to be or from a point nearer the hole than that place. Time spent in playing a wrong ball is not counted in the five-minute period allowed for search.”

Each of the words italicized in the above definition also have definitions within the rules of golf. I struggled fiercely with understanding the rules of golf until I received and finally understood two essential pieces of advice. One came from Bill Homeyer, a distinguished local businessman and learned rules official. Bill told me to begin with the definitions and to understand them absolutely and completely. He can virtually recite them all from memory. I set out to gain such an understanding. Then Reed Mackenzie, former President of the United States Golf Association gave me more abstract but equally important advice. He suggests that one needs to understand the basic principles behind the rules of golf – the concept of one ball struck from a teeing ground, not to be touched it again with anything but a stroke with the clubhead until you retrieve it from the hole. Then, Reed counseled, you begin to understand that the rules ‘kick in’ when situations make it either impossible to do that or unfair in competitive circumstances.

So, at my clubl, I pulled a ball hard off the teeing ground and I saw it go into a little tree just to the left and only 50 yards ahead of me. After my fellow players hit their fine tee shots, I walked up to that tree and, yes siree, I see a ball pinched between a couple of branches at the top of the tree. The tree is pretty small, as trees go, and I think about shaking it to dislodge the ball so that it will fall to the ground. Then I realize I will violate a rule if I do that. I will have moved a ball at rest and (under Rule 18-2) I will need to take a 1 stroke penalty and put it back where it originally lay – in the branches of the tree. Oops, I better not do that. What if I just ask to declare this ball unplayable. Rule 28 tells me that a “player may deem his ball unplayable anywhere on the course except when a ball is in a water hazard. The player is the sole judge as to whether his ball is unplayable.” Using that rule I ought to be able to take the spot on the course directly beneath where my ball is stuck in the tree and drop it within two club lengths of that spot and no nearer the hole and go ahead and play it, taking a single penalty stroke.

Okay? Am I good to go? No, I am not. In order to substitute another ball and put it into play I must be able to identify the ball that I abandon as truly mine. That ball up in that tree is probably mine to a certainty in the 99 percentile. Yet, when I look up there I can see no markings and not even a brand name. Even though it would be better for me to go back to the tee and take the stroke and penalty under this situation, I want to take the one stroke penalty and play from here, 50 yards in advance of the tee. So, I announce that I am going to attempt to shake that small tree and I declare that, if the ball falls out and it is mine, I will then play it under Rule 28 (Ball Unplayable). I do. It is. I drop it in the deep rough under the proper procedures. I hit it for the second time on this hole and I am now laying 3. I would have been equally well off and, perhaps, better off to return to the tee, but I am a stubborn sort.

The rules of golf provided me with a number of routes of escape in the above situation. They aren’t written to specifically punish me for having hit such a terrible pull-shot. They are written to assist me – to allow me to keep playing – but with an eye to fairness in terms of my score against the golf course and my opponents.

Every time I run across a rule that I think is silly in a pedantic sort of way, I stop to consider first that it was likely written to assist the player – to help him out of a difficult situation. Then a penalty was probably, but not always, added to bring the playing field back to level again. Looked at this way, the Rules of Golf lose most of their mystery and some of their complexity. One of the best examples of this is the water hazard rule, specifically Rule 26-2 which is often referred to as the ‘regression rule.’ What happens if a player hits a ball into a water hazard and finding a rather good lie, decides to play it in order to avoid a penalty; and, in so doing, only hits it out of bounds? Rule 27-1 (Ball Out of Bounds) tells us we must drop another ball as near as possible to the spot from which the original ball was hit and play from there with a stroke penalty. Ooops! The player now finds he had taken a large divot there, the water has rushed in deeper and the mud has been so churned up that it will be forever before the water clears up enough for him to see the ball if he drops one there. What a revoltin’ development! Rule 26-2 to the rescue. The player may ‘regress’ back to the spot from which he played the shot that went into the water hazard. He may drop at that spot and play the ball from there. Now, however, he has to add the stroke penalty he would have had had he dropped in the water hazard and a stroke penalty for regressing back to the spot from which he originally hit the ball into the water. It’s fair to everyone. The player is helped out of a sticky situation and his opponents are protected because he is going to incur two penalty strokes in that situation and also the distance back to the original shot that started the mess. [My critics will point out that there is actually another option the golfer could take in this situation. I know that. I simply don’t want to make this essay too long or too sticky.]

The Decisions of Golf are so wonderful because they allow us to visit a number of situations like the one above in order to see how the rule applies in various situations. One just goes to the Decisions Book and looks under those decisions codified under 26-2 (the rule we dealt with just above). They will be numbered 26-2/1, or 26-2/2. That same well organized system applies to the decisions about all the rules.

One can either look at the Decisions Book and recoil in agonized fear or one can realize that this book provides hundreds and hundreds of interesting situations or predicaments in which golfers have found themselves. It is fascinating to see how the Rules of Golf are applied in these decisions. It is even more fascinating to see how the Rules of Golf helped players to extricate themselves from seemingly hopeless situations.

The Decisions Book makes excellent and fascinating winter reading – especially if you enjoy mysteries!

Some appended reading for the truly interested…

Remember Craig Stadler, in an attempt not to soil his slacks, laying down a towel in order to kneel on it to play a shot from beneath a tree? What a silly penalty the galleries said! Yet, there was no option. The Rules and the Decisions are clear on the point! Remember Paul Azinger in a water hazard, trying to take a level stance and pawing and scraping rocks away with his feet and golf shoes in order to do so. He was moving loose impediments in a water hazard. The Rules and the Decisions are clear on the point!

How important are the rules to you as a golfer? I was playing a strictly fun match with a fivesome or so one autumn at my club. Everyone was playing everyone else for a couple of bucks. I hit my tee shot on the short par 3 second hole on to the steep bank on the left side. I could barely see my ball. I stubbed it forward a foot or so. I addressed it again and, as I laid my wedge upon the grass behind the ball, the ball rolled down the hill 5 or 6 inches. I picked it up, explained to my fellow players what had happened and conceded the hole to everyone. They chortled at me. “We’re not playing in the U.S. Open for gad sake!” Except, these are my competitive championship moments and I want desperately to win; however, I must win within the nearly sacred rules of golf or I have not won at all. To me, it’s simple. We were playing match play. I called the penalty on myself. I was clearly out of the hole. I had the perfect right to concede the hole and pick up.

One of the great USGA wizards of golf decided to play one weekend morning at his club and drove out there to find a game. He asked to join a threesome preparing to tee off. “Okay,” they said, “but don’t pull any of this silly rules stuff on us. We’re just playing for a few bucks and we’re out to have fun. On the first hole, the stuffy USGA rules guy hit his ball into a bunker fronting the putting green. As his fellow players watched, he walked into the bunker, picked up his ball and threw it back behind the bunker. He raked his foot prints smooth and then clipped his ball cleanly and it stopped on the lip of the hole. “That’s par,” he announced to his companions. They looked at him aghast. “You can’t do that,” they all cried in unison. He chuckled at them and said: “But I thought you said the rules are silly!”

1 comment:

  1. Chas! Great to see you at the Rules Workshop and THANKS for plugging my blog!