By David Owen
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.
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:
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.
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:
(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.
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.
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 ball, he 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.
I could go on.