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Original Issue

Let's Clear Up The Rules

The writer struggles with an annual dilemma and comes up with a request to the USGA:

AT THE BEGINNING of every golf season I make it a practice, as most golfers do, to read through the year's new edition of The Rules of Golf, that pocket-sized manual which the U.S. Golf Association annually prints up for the benefit of all of us who play the game. Each year I find that I end up in exactly the same dilemma after making my way through the book by slow marches: the rules I have always understood give me no trouble; the rules I have always been hazy about, and would like to get straight for once, persist in remaining undecipherable.

The reason for my bringing this up is that, almost every place where my travels in golf took me this past season, I ran into 1) experienced officials sighing, with the ebullient resignation of free-lance nursemaids, what a sad paradox it is that so few golfers know the rules; and 2) countless golfers who would like to know the rules but who have found that, past a point, studying The Rules of Golf is no help whatsoever. This confusion engulfs not only the average weekend golfer but also the men at the top of the tree. I remember, for example, a very illustrative episode last April which took place in the lounge area of the players' dressing room at the Augusta National the afternoon before the first round of the Masters, when Ben Hogan pulled out his copy of the rule book and asked the officials present if by any chance they understood, since he didn't, the meaning of Rule 35-3-a. This rule bears the heading of Stroke Play—Ball Interfering With Play and reads as follows(the italics are those of the rule book):

"When the ball nearer the hole lies on the putting green, if the competitor consider that the fellow-competitor's ball might interfere with his play, the competitor may require the fellow-competitor to lift or play his ball, at the option of its owner, without penalty.

"If the owner of the ball refuse to comply with this Rule when required to do so, the competitor making the request may lift the ball, and the owner of the ball shall be disqualified.

"Note: It is recommended that the ball nearer the hole be played, rather than lifted, unless the subsequent play of a fellow-competitor is likely to be affected."

No two people in the small band gathered around Hogan interpreted the rule quite alike. However, a general agreement as to what the rule meant to say but didn't was arrived at after 10 minutes of intricate discussion. Hogan returned the book to his pocket with that enigmatic smile of his, apparently satisfied that he knew as much as could be expected of him.


Since this confusion is epidemic, what is needed (and has been needed for a long time) is a completely revised rule book, not simply a new edition. To begin with, many of the rules need to be rewritten, in straightforward language and not in the complex, flying-clause, quasi-legal terminology that has grown up. (Rule X of the 13 rules in the original 1744 code provides a good example of language that possesses a real directness: "If a ball be stop'd by any person, horse, dog, or anything else, the ball so stop'd must be played where it lyes." Modern rules, to be sure, must take many more contingencies into account, but it would be a gain if they could be stated with some of this old declarative spirit.) The rule book, moreover, would be vastly more readable and much easier to find one's way around in if a rather wholesale revision were to be made of the headings of many of the rules and the titles of many of the sections under which certain related rules are grouped.

Above all, a complete restudy should be made of the order and arrangement of the sections and the rules. For example, it would be of great service to golfers if, regardless of whatever other sections in which they might also appear, all the rules that apply to match play were to be gathered in one special section and all the rules that apply to stroke play in another special section. Nowadays, the average golfer seeking such information is compelled to leaf through numerous ambiguously headed rules—such as one called Disputes and Doubt as to Rights, in a section called Procedure—being offered little or no guidance as to where the desired information is located.

It would be an excellent advance also if some of the more complicated rules were explained by supplemental diagrams. (You will rarely see an official who attempts to clarify the beautifully buffaloing business of water hazards, regular, lateral, and parallel, without resorting to a pencil sketch.) The one over-all goal should be to produce a rule book which a golfer will find so clear and serviceable he will come to think of it as a pleasurable companion and not as the silent confederate of "fairway lawyers."

At its next meeting, the USGA's Rules of Golf Committee would also do well to examine the merit of several rules now in the book. (At this juncture it might not be inappropriate to point out that, to my knowledge, there is no other governing body in all of sport that is in the same class with the USGA when it comes to enlightened, capable stewardship.) One rule, of course, that must be re-evalued is the 1956 "within 20 yards" innovation which, to put it as briefly as possible, gives the man playing the shot the option of whether the flagstick be unattended or not and eliminates the penalty if the ball strikes an unattended flagstick. The primary idea behind the rule was to speed up play. It hasn't. It may even have slowed play down, what with one member of a foursome wanting the stick in, another out, and so on. Beyond this, the rule has bred that unsavory twist whereby a player with a downhill or sidehill putt leaves the flagstick in, figuring that should heoverstroke the ball, the stick will serve nicely as a backboard. The idea in golf is to put the ball into a hole, not to hit it against a vertical pole—that is kolf, the game the Dutch used to play on the frozen canals. Using the flagstick as a backstop is really as alien to the spirit of the game as it would be for a tournament golfer deliberately to play a difficult approach to bounce into the gallery packed closely behind a green, knowing that the ball would be stopped by the captive spectators and would probably end up on the apron at worst.

Another phase of the rules that deserves inspection is the weird agglutination concerning the provisional ball. To honor the present rule perfectly, a player, before stepping up to his provisional, must announce to his opponent or to the marker: "This is a provisional"; and he would do well to add:"My provisional applies to the possibility of my first ball's being out of bounds, unplayable, or lost, but it does not apply to a ball in a water hazard." At this stage of its development, however, the rule does not require the player to recite The Vision of Sir Launfal and The Chambered Nautilus.

But the baby which most golfers would like to see changed is the out-of-bounds rule. Before 1952, in effect, a golfer who hit a ball out of bounds was penalized distance only. He lost, in effect, only that one shot he hit out of bounds. Under the present rule he loses distance and is penalized an additional stroke. For example, if he bangs his first tee shot out of bounds, he is playing 3 and not 2 when he tees up again. Officials tell me that the new and severer rule was prompted, to a large measure, by a general feeling that the penalty for out-of-bounds should be more consistent with the penalties for an unplayable lie (two shots), a lost ball (distance plus a penalty stroke), and for a ball in a water hazard (which we won't go into, life being a fleeting thing). Anyhow, the more you think about it, there is no compelling reason for seeking to establish such a consistency. For one thing, a player is not penalized distance when he hits a shot into a water hazard. More tothe heart of the matter, an unplayable lie and a lost ball are essentially rub-of-the-green misfortunes and, as such, much rarer birds on most courses than out-of-bounds.


Granted that there will always be a few unreconstructable finaglers who will try to find their way around any rule and who, if out-of-bounds were returned to distance only, would lose no time in declaring any unfound ball to be out of bounds. Nevertheless, it is the bulk of golfers, the honest abides, who should first be taken into consideration when the rules are formulated. For them the present "two-stroke penalty" is a crusher; it offers no reprieve, regardless of how excellently the average golfer plays his second ball on that hole. If it were only the truly lousy shots that were punished, the rule would be more tenable. Today, however, there are hundreds and hundreds of courses where the out-of-bounds markers border closely on the fairway—many clubs are just darn lazy about clearing out scrub and woods, others are hemmed in tightly by Suburbia. As a result, the present penalty frequently is all out of proportion to the degree of the player's error. A normalkick and he's hit a good shot. A bad kick and he's out of bounds. The punishment doesn't fit the crime.

Most tournament golfers learn to learn the rules, for there are situations in which the book is on the knowledgeable player's side. In a recent Masters, for example, one astute contestant, who had played an approach into a water hazard, pointed out to an official that the bridge (an immovable obstruction) would interfere with his backswing on his next shot. Under the rules, he was entitled to lift and drop (within the boundaries of the hazard) without penalty and to his decided benefit. A somewhat similar, if somewhat different, incident that comes to mind took place in the 1955 Open when Sam Snead hooked into the rough on the 12th hole and found his ball lying in the cast thrown up in all probability by "a burrowing animal" (Rule 32-1). Sam summoned an official for corroboration. During the five minutes he waited for the official to arrive, Sam paced nervously back and forth through the rough, so that, whether through coincidence or perspicacity, the stubblygrass was nice and trampled down when Sam received official word that he could lift and drop without penalty.

Knowing how to protect yourself by knowing the rules is one thing, but setting out purposefully to defeat an opponent by technicalities is another. In this department, there is no one who can hold a candle to a certain breed of women golfers which has sprung up in this country. I refer to that band of petulant Portias who seldom get through a round without claiming at least one hole on some technical infraction, like calling their opponent for teeing up more than two club lengths behind the markers, or for marking the ball obscurely on the green. In their mischanneled passion for winning via the rule book and not via golf shots, they go to extremes that would be laughable if they weren't also so irritating. It is not at all unusual, for example, for one of these "keen competitors" to stand by silently when she sees that her opponent is going to play the wrong ball and then, after the shot has been struck, to step forward and considerately apprise her opponent thatshe is claiming the hole. No wonder mah jong is again making dangerous inroads!