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Punishment that fits the crime

I once despised the stroke-and-distance penalty, but now I see the light

September 12, 2022

When I began this journey, I was aflame with a sense that injustice prevailed in the game of golf—a specific injustice, regarding lost balls and out of bounds—and that perhaps I could shine a sliver of light into the dark with a one-man crusade. I was obsessed by order, by what was "right." In time, through the motions of history, and the wisdom of a dead man named Richard Tufts and an alive one named David Staebler, this radical modernism seeped out of me, leaving in its place a deeper truth: that fairness is not the necessary ingredient in life, and that the ideal world it depicts in fantasy is not just unattainable, but undesirable.

Before the epiphany, here's how my story might have begun …

Picture yourself on the tee of a narrow par 4. On your right, a long pond runs along the fairway, marked with red stakes to indicate a lateral penalty area. On your left, a line of oak trees separates the course from the road and white stakes along the curb tell you this is out of bounds.

Imagine that you play this hole on two consecutive days. On the first day, your tee shot fades hard, lands in play, but trickles rightward into the water. You have several options under the rules, but it's a no-brainer to drop where the ball entered the water and take a penalty stroke. From there, you hit a long approach onto the green and two-putt for bogey. The second day, your tee shot moves left and rolls into the trees. You can't find it; it's either lost in the stretch of oaks or out of bounds. You have a few options here, too, but yesterday's drop is not one of them. Because the ball is lost or OB, you can apply a stroke-and-distance penalty and re-tee, which murders your pace of play and annoys the group behind you if you haven't hit a provisional, or you can utilize a USGA local rule adopted in 2019, take two penalty strokes and place the ball in the fairway or rough even with where it left the course. This time, double bogey is a more likely outcome, and that's if you don't make any other mistakes.

What's the difference? Why is missing left in the road more penal than hitting into the water? For many golfers, myself included, this scenario is far from hypothetical. Out-of-bounds and lost-ball penalties are incredibly punitive to the recreational golfer and can ruin a decent round faster than any other mistake.

I’m as willing as anyone to take my lumps, but the question remains: Does it make sense? When I first started considering the question, I assumed that as a relatively late convert who never played in his youth, I must be missing something obvious. Ever eager to potentially make a fool of myself, I took the question to Twitter:

There were many "answers," but most of them failed to address the fundamental question. "Out of bounds is off the course, while you can play from a hazard," I was told. OK, but you can't play from the bottom of a pond … what makes hitting OB so much worse that it can't be treated the same as the pond?

Some argued that out-of-bounds areas tend to be where people live, drive or otherwise exist outside the golf course, and the rule is designed to discourage players from hitting in those spots. That was at least a valid reason, but I found zero evidence in my research that the rule was written with that logic in mind and, more importantly, zero evidence that simply marking some area with white stakes has any deterrent effect. It certainly hasn't stopped me.

The most common reply, though, was that hitting out of bounds or losing it was worse than hitting in a hazard. But why, I kept asking? One shot isn't necessarily poorer than another; in fact, it might be better. Why punish a ball that went right more than one that went left, or vice versa?

The circular debate raged on to no resolution. I tried again a month later, but nothing fundamentally new emerged. "If the ball is lost," one person asked, "how do you know where to drop it?" That made sense for a moment, until I remembered that the situation is essentially the same for a ball that reaches a lateral hazard.

I’d had enough of civilians; I needed to turn to the experts.

Missy Jones and I were fated to have a frustrating conversation. She's the Manager of Rules and Competition at the LPGA and a longtime rules official who is widely recognized on social media as an authority on these matters. Our talk started well enough, though, because she offered an explanation that went beyond what the Twitter hordes could summon.

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A white OB stake brings with it a visceral dread.

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"Basically, the course is defined," she said. "It's just like a basketball court or a football field, and rule one says that the game starts by hitting the ball on the tee, and you go down stroke by stroke by stroke until you get it in the hole. If you hit it off the golf course, you don't have a place on the course. So you have to get that sequence back in order. That's a way bigger deal than the penalty area, which is part of the golf course. Once you get off of it, we have to get that sequence going again, and there has to be a penalty to get you back into play."

So far so good, but I could tell we were about to be at loggerheads, because my next question was the one I'd been pondering for weeks already: Why can't the penalty just be a stroke? Why must it be the cursed stroke-and-distance, or the weird hybrid two-strokes rule? How is the sequence any less broken if you're in a lake on the course instead of a back yard off of it?

This exchange occurred approximately three minutes into our conversation, and though we spoke for 10 more, the dialogue can be roughly summed up as follows:

Me: Why is it a more severe penalty for OB?

Jones: Because you're off the course, and that's worse.

Me: Why is it worse?

Jones: Because that's the way the rules are written.

Me: But why?

Jones: I hate you.

She didn't actually say she hated me, and hopefully she doesn't, but it was trending in that direction. Lost ball was the same logic: The chain of shots is broken, you have no idea where the ball is, so you have to re-establish the progression. To which my counter-argument went that you do know where it is—it's in the woods, which you know as surely as you know when you hit a ball into the lake, and in both cases you can't see the ball. She responded that if the ball is lost you actually don't know where it is, and it could be out of bounds. She was not in favor of different rules for amateurs and pros, and definitely not in favor of changing the OB/lost-ball rule to just a single penalty stroke.

"The unplayability has nothing to do with the concept behind the why," she said at the end of our conversation. Though it sounded a little like a zen koan, I appreciated it, because it was the first indication that my attempts to logic my way into delegitimizing this rule had no traction; the rule goes deeper.

This wasn’t enough, however, to wake me up.

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Since 2019, the USGA and R&A have offered a new option for how to play when you lose your ball or hit it out of bounds.

I also spoke with Kathryn Belanger, the Director of Rules - Championships at the USGA, and though I hate to give her short shrift, the conversation was almost exactly the same as the one with Jones. She did give me the solace of telling me I wasn't alone in my sense that the OB/lost-ball system was unfair, but she was equally unmoved by my arguments and for the same reasons: the progression of strokes had been broken and it had to be made right. When I asked if anybody in power was crusading for what had become my pet issue, she tried to let me down easy.

"I don't know if I'd say your camp is, you know, thoroughly represented within the Rules of Golf Committee," she said.

She was equally diplomatic when I asked if she, personally, would support a rule change: "I'd have a hard time getting there."

"I'd have a hard time getting there."

Belanger and Jones, though, both clued me in to some excellent resources. Belanger pointed me to the website RulesHistory.com, which looks like it was made in approximately 1994 and not touched since, but has a wealth of information about various changes to the rules attempted since golf's advent.

There, you can read that the penalty for a lost ball is the same now as it was in 1744, but has undergone some major adjustments in the meantime, only to revert quickly in every case. In 1842, St. Andrews changed the rule to three strokes and distance, which is patently insane and must have been widely loathed, because they changed it back in 1846. In 1950, though, the R&A took a step in the direction I'm advocating, reducing the penalty to "distance only," which means that you still have to re-tee, but with no penalty stroke. That only lasted two years, but in 1960 the USGA did the same thing … and rescinded it one year later, in 1961.

Then I discovered the real bombshell: In 1964, the USGA approved a local rule that allowed for a stroke-only penalty for balls hit out of bounds, stipulating that the player could drop within two club lengths of where the ball left the course. I was stunned to discover that the nirvana I was chasing had existed … but like many paradises on earth, it lasted only four sweet years until it was rescinded in 1968.

What prompted the change? Why did they reverse course? This seemed like a mystery that would be incredibly difficult to unravel, but luckily, Jones had recommended a book by Richard S. Tufts called The Principles Behind the Rules of Golf. Tufts was a former president of the USGA and the grandson of the man who founded Pinehurst Resort, and he passed away in 1980 at 84. But his book has been updated on a few occasions, and thanks to a friend, I got my hands on the third edition as updated by William J. Williams, Jr., effective through 2016.

It's a delightful book, a bit strange and a bit funny, and is dedicated to "all lovers of the game of golf … with apologies for the fact that it is somewhat on the heavy side" and the warning that it is intended for "their education and not their entertainment." The subject headings alone are worth the price of purchase ($1.50, from the USGA website) and include gems like "There Must Be a Purpose" and "How Goes the Battle?" and "Things Unfair."

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J.D. Cuban

For our purposes, the most fascinating section comes in an appendix that Williams preserved for posterity in which Tufts discusses not the 1964 stroke-only change, but the 1960 distance-only experiment. We'll get there momentarily—in the meantime, a modern footnote from Williams offers an explanation of why the 1964 stroke-only change failed after a few years:

"Presumably, the second experiment was abandoned due to (1) the difficulty of determining where a ball crosses an out-of-bounds bounder when, as is so often the case, the boundary is parallel to the line of play and (2) the difficulty, identified by Mr. Tufts, of treating balls lost and out of bounds differently, e.g., when a ball is struck near an out-of-bounds boundary, it is not found and it is impossible to determine whether it was lost in bounds [in which case the penalty stroke was stroke and distance) or out of bounds (in which case the penalty was one stroke]."

Here again, my response would be that 1, we have to undertake the same difficulty of determining where the ball went out when we hit into a lateral hazard, and furthermore the new USGA local rule allows us to do exactly that for lost balls and OB at a penalty of two strokes, which basically concedes the point, and 2, it seems tragic that they didn't simply make the rule the same for both situations, because we still might have it today.

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Richard S. Tufts, a former USGA president, explains things well in his book The Principles Behind the Rules of Golf.

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Nevertheless, it's fascinating to read what an august authority like Tufts had to say about the 1960 experiment. At first, to my great delight, he seemed to agree with me:

"There are four similar situations in golf in which the ball is removed from play. These are: when the ball is lost, when it goes out of bounds, when it is unplayable in a water hazard and when it is declared unplayable by the player. It is possible that all four and probably that at least three of these situations can often occur in close proximity with one another. Therefore, under the principle that like situations should be treated alike, it would seem wholly logical to apply the same rule to all four situations. In fact, from the standpoint of equity it is almost impossible to defend any other treatment of these four analogous situations."

Yes! A thrill ran through me on reading these words, a frisson of vindication from (golf) antiquity. Unfortunately, this was only the preamble. He continued:

"Unhappily, there has been a great deal of public clamor in favor of a softer rule for a ball out of bounds. The rules-makers have long been aware of golfers' interest, but it has been simply impossible to devise any rule which accomplished the desired results without doing real injury to the game."

What follows next is less relevant, but when he discusses out of bounds, there's one more salient passage:

"The out of bounds which runs along the edge of the fairway has a totally different effect on the play of the game than the out of bounds which is remotely situated in ‘tiger country.’ The first boundary is not likely to be associated with lost or unplayable balls, but it’s more naturally affiliated with water hazards and might consequently be played in similar fashion [author's note: !!!!]. The remote boundary is associated with lost and unplayable balls and should, therefore, receive similar treatment under the Rules."

Tufts made a compelling case against the 1960 change, but I found myself wishing that he had written something about the later, more sensible, stroke-only penalty adopted in ‘64. Instead, I came up empty and was left with the same tautological stalemate: Whether you believe the out-of-bounds or lost-ball penalty should be more severe depends on whether you believe the out-of-bounds or lost-ball penalty should be more severe.

One last word of wisdom from Tufts, had I read it at the time, might have prepared me more adequately for my final conversation, the one which brought revelation. For all his talk of “like situations being treated alike,” and “principles of equity,” there are indications from Tufts that something deeper and more universal flows beneath the surface.

"Golf, like life itself, leads those who play it into many situations that appear to be unfair," he writes in a chapter titled “The Scales of Justice.” "The successful golfer rises to the occasion and refuses to give way to fate or frustration … the approach is not whether 'this particular situation is unfair to me,' but rather whether 'others in a similar situation and I in mine are treated alike under the Rules.'"

David Staebler is the Director of Rules Education at the USGA, recommended to me by former USGA executive director David Fay with the endorsement that he was a "swell guy with a sharp humor." I decided this would be my last phone call; I was resigned to no resolution and suspected that we would have the same fruitless back-and-forth that I'd had with Jones and Belanger.

For a while, I was right, although his approach was particularly enjoyable.

"Let's start with this: There's vast dissatisfaction over this rule," he said, by way of introduction. "I'm reminded of something that Winston Churchill once said about the United States. He said, ‘You can always count on the United States to do the right thing … after they've tried everything else first.’ And in the case of lost balls and out of bounds, there's been this endless search to find something that is more palatable to golfers, but none of them seem to work."

Quickly, though, we were back to the morass of progression of strokes and unbroken chains, and the distinction between a penalty area and going completely off the course. His knowledge was thorough and comprehensive, just like Jones and Belanger, and we arrived at the same butting of heads. Why, I asked, can't a lost ball be treated like a lateral hazard, when I can identify where it went out just as well or as poorly as I can when it goes into the water, and just as well as I can in the exact same situation when I'm using the two-stroke local rule?

There was a pause on the other end of the line, and I thought I had him. For a moment—we'll never know—that may have been true. But after reverting to the old arguments for a second, he deftly escaped the trap … and then blew my mind.

"You want to argue that this is arbitrary," he said, "and I will concede that all rules are arbitrary. What rules are is drawing a line in the sand saying, 'if you're on this side of the line you get x, and if you're on this side of the line you get y.' I've heard Lee Trevino say the game was created by people who believe music comes out of bagpipes. OK? And there's certainly a Calvinistic punishment strain to the nature of the game. But there's no great game, whether it's Monopoly or baseball or whatever version of poker you want to play, that is fair across the board. In fact, any game that they try to invent that's fair across the board is boring. They can be mastered. There's always this element of randomness and unfairness; great shot, bad result, terrible shot, great result. It can crop up or happen at any time. And one of the things that keeps us coming back to this crazy game is trying to overcome the obstacles that randomness throws in our way, and having to overcome expectations in our brains."

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The search for a lost ball becomes more difficult with each passing minute, knowing that when time is up, and the ball isn't found, the penalty is harsh.

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Staebler wasn't conceding that the rule itself was arbitrary—he brought up Tufts' point that there are many different types of OB, it doesn't always work to drop a clubs length from where the ball left the course—but his larger point was like a dagger. Suddenly, I felt the selfish weight of what I had been attempting, which was to impose my own logic and sense of justice onto a game whose parameters expand so far beyond any simple notion of fairness. If there is a god, or even a golf god, I am not It, and to stand in the face of more than a century of history took a kind of peevish arrogance and self-regard that in a flash began to look awfully small.

Why have similar arguments and even outright changes failed in the past? Because the weight of history is powerful, there is genius in what has persisted through sharper challenges than my own, and petty notions of microcosmic justice fail under the staggering light of the path set before us.

"I'll take history as my lesson," Staebler said.

And I knew he was right.

It's our job—my job—to walk that path, and to adapt ourselves to the challenges, rather than manipulate the path to our advantage. There is no true happiness there; no satisfaction. The authority of the higher principle is absolute, especially if it has been tested throughout the years. The goal of the mortal is not to change the principle, but to test himself against it.

"That's what makes it great," Staebler said. "The game can throw something at you that's just completely unfair. And yet you can hold your wits about you and overcome the slings and arrows … or just fall apart like a house of cards."

Brilliant.

All of that being said, a 2019 adjustment to the rules now gives greater autonomy to individual courses to define "penalty areas." In other words, a rogue director or superintendent who wanted to line a roadway with red stakes instead of white, opening up the option of lateral relief in what had previously been an out of bounds zone, is now within his rights to do so. Fairness need not enter the discussion; pace of play would be justification enough. If any such rebels take advantage of this new authority—particularly along holes 2 through 5 at Hillandale Golf Course in Durham, N.C.—it occurs to me that there are old gods, and there are new gods, and no mortal should stand in the way of either.