Last month, seven friends and I ventured to a spectacular golf destination to play some mostly unspectacular golf. The assortment of players included single digits, mid-handicaps and the dreaded guy who doesn’t “play as much anymore so I guess I’m around a 17.” That guy is fortunate we’re still talking to him.
The challenge in convening a group of golfers of varying abilities is about more than just equitable competition, however. More notable is how few of us actually know all the rules.
If it’s true for lapsed golfers playing their first meaningful rounds in years, it’s also so for avid players, and even the occasional Golf Digest editor that friends expect to spew out arcane rules decisions on command like ChatGPT. Several years ago, Alex Myers and I collaborated on what we coined The Reasonable Man’s Rules Of Golf, which was meant as an alternative way to govern a friendly round of golf (also worth it to see both of us in comically oversized pants). But a golf trip can be different, because a casual approach to golf rules often creates the inverse problem: an absence of clarity can lead to a greater misunderstanding. Throw some healthy wagering, a surplus of adult beverages and a deficit of sleep into the mix, and it’s a wonder more trips don’t lead to the outright dissolution of friendships.
Ours didn’t, thankfully, but even at dinner the final night, it was apparent how often the group was flying blind around moments that could have really mattered. With questions fresh in my head, I consulted Golf Digest’s foremost rules editor, Ron Kaspriske, to help me disseminate what we got wrong, and what should have happened instead.
Ron, let’s start with the handicap question. Six guys on the trip have them, two don't. Is there anything we could have done better than simply guess?
Yes, there are ways to make things more equitable in terms of stroke allocation. First, let's start with the mistake everyone makes: Don't subtract 72 from their average score to come up with a Handicap Index. Do that, and you're almost guaranteeing they are getting extra strokes. The best way to arrive at a mostly accurate number is to take the average of your best scores (the eight best of your last 20, or even the two best of your last five), subtract 72 from that number and then multiply whatever is left by .90 (you can even round down as a further measure). It's not perfect, but it gets you closer to reality.
OK, on to rules. For better or worse, we decided to play lateral hazards everywhere on our trip, so whether you lost a ball or hit into the gorse, we basically said to drop from where a ball crossed in and take a stroke. It was great for pace of play, but maybe we were too generous in spots?
Pace of play is always No. 1 in my book, but when money is on the line, a stricter form of golf is best. What you should have done is used Model Local Rule E-5 for balls that went sailing OB. This option allows the player to drop in a large area between the point where the ball is estimated to have come to rest or gone out of bounds and the edge of the fairway of the hole being played that is not nearer the hole. The player gets two penalty strokes when using this relief option. This means that the relief is comparable to what could have been achieved if the player had taken stroke-and-distance relief. Saves time and is perfectly legal. Save the penalty-area procedure for those rivers, ponds and marshes. And if you're not sure a ball is lost, just say "provisional" and reload right then and there. It doesn't take any extra time.
Wait, so all those times we were assessing one stroke penalties for going OB, we should have been giving two. What about lost balls?
Yes. You should’ve been lying three instead of two if it was a shot from the tee. It does not apply to lost balls. In that case, you would be hitting a provisional. If you’re worried about saving time with a potential lost ball, you can declare it lost at any moment.
As opposed to in stroke play, order of play matters in a match.
Another one people get confused by is honors. Again, I'm a big believer in "ready golf.” But a match is different. If I'm between a 6- and a 7-iron on a par 3, I don't want to go first unless I have to. What's the actual rule?
Order of play in matches is important. As you know, there is no penalty for playing out of order in stroke play, but in match play, if you play before your turn, your opponent can make you replay that shot in the correct order. And it happens, even on the pro tours. Essentially, the player farthest from the hole, regardless of position (including on the green), has the right to play. If it's a fourball match, teammates can decide who plays first when it's their turn.
Here’s another one that comes up in matches, including on our trip. Our opponent has a 10-footer for 4. His partner has a 12-footer on the same line for 5. Not wanting the partner to benefit from seeing the line, we concede the longer putt. What happens if that player wants to putt it anyway?
You can still putt after your next stroke has been conceded (Rule 23.6), but be careful before you do if you’re playing foursomes or fourball. If any information from your putt would give your partner an advantage in playing his or her next stroke, your partner's score on that hole would not count.
OK my last question is a broad one. If it's meant to be a friendly, fairly casual golf trip but one that still features fair competition, what suggestions would you make ahead of time?
I would identify the most common rules scenarios before the trip and get everyone to agree on a certain procedure. For example, is there a distance from the hole where it's not necessary to putt out? Do you cap searches at one minute?
You also could appoint a "Rules Czar" for the trip. If there's any dispute over a procedure, have the Czar make the final call. If you're worried about how money might impact behavior, maybe do what they do in the baseball locker room and issue fines at the 19th hole after a round for egregious rules violations, such as taking a too generous drop. That way, the player who got away with it during the round but has to pay for it in the end. Make it fun.