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Explainer: Here's what you can and can't do on the green, and why those rules exist in the first place

By Ron Kaspriske

Sergio Garcia did not tap down spike marks on his putting line on Thursday at the HSBC Championship in Abu Dhabi. But what if he had? And what's the big deal with tapping down spike marks, anyway?
 
To answer the first question: It's a violation of Rule 16-1a and comes with a two-shot penalty in stroke play (loss of hole in match play).


The tournament committee could have also disqualified Garcia if they felt he had gained a significant advantage by tapping down the spike marks. That would be considered a serious breach of the rules. The European Tour's Simon Dyson was disqualified at the BMW Masters in October after tapping down spike marks.

 
To answer the second question: It's a big deal because you're essentially improving your line of play (a violation of Rule 13-1) and making it easier for you to hole out. To quote Richard Tufts from his 1960 book The Principles Behind the Rules of Golf, "this simply means that the player must accept the conditions he encounters during play and may not alter them to suit his convenience." It would be like pressing down a channel from your ball's position to the hole so it can roll into the cup like a gutterball in bowling. Rules makers generally frown upon improving course conditions so you can score better. Remember that.

 
And on a more practical note, imagine how slow rounds would become if golfers were allowed to repair all the little marks and indentations on each green.
 
OK, so what CAN you do on a putting green on your line of putt? Here are six:
 
  1. You can remove loose impediments. Things such as sand, soil, stones, twigs, insects, and goose droppings. You can remove these things any way you want, provided you don't press anything down into the turf or test the surface.
  2. You can repair those little craters created when a ball hits the green.
  3. You can repair old hole plugs created when the superintendent's staff move the cup from location to another.
  4. You can place your putter down in front of your ball when you address it (remember, don't press down).
  5. You can touch the line in the process of measuring, lifting or replacing your ball or to remove a moveable obstruction such as a coin left on the green by the group in front of you.
  6. Once you putt out, provided you aren't aiding a fellow competitor with his or her putt, you can tap down spike marks, fix a damaged hole (sometimes a part of the circumference caves in) or push the hole liner back down (they sometimes get pulled up when the flagstick is removed.

And here's what you can't do:
 
  1. Repair any damage other than hole plugs or ball marks. This includes any indentations created by the 275-pound guy playing in the group in front of you.
  2. Touch your line of putt for any other reason than the ones listed above.
  3. Test the surface by rolling a ball, scraping or roughening the grass.
  4. Sweep away casual water, dew or frost.
 
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