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A Simpler Game | Standing on Principle

Some of the Rules of Golf may seem unnecessary—even unfair—but there’s a distinct reason, logic, and spirit behind them

By: Tom Cunneff

Appeared in the Summer 2012 issue of LINKS.

THERE ISN'T A GOLFER out there who hasn’t at one time or another decried the Rules that govern the game, loudly proclaiming them unfair because his ball ended up in a divot in the fairway or was diverted by a spike mark on its way into the hole.

Though you might not believe it, the USGA and the R&A hear your cries and take them into consideration when they contemplate amending the Rules. The two organizations are not nearly as stodgy and intransigent as people think. Just this year they made a couple of significant changes to the Rules, most notably the elimination of a penalty if a ball moves after address (when it’s known or virtually known that the player did not cause the ball to move). Another big change allows golfers to rake a bunker prior to a stroke provided it is just to care for the course (i.e., dragging a rake behind you as you walk to the ball) and not to improve the intended area of his stance or swing.

“The Rules of Golf Committee of the USGA meets four times a year, and then there’s a Joint Rules Committee that meets twice a year with the R&A,” says manager of Rules communications John Van der Borght. “We’re four years from the next Rules changes, but we’re already discussing potential changes. Some will be adopted, some won’t.”

What guides the committee—and what should guide all golfers—are the important tenets outlined by former USGA president Richard S. Tufts in his 1960 monograph, The Principles Behind the Rules of Golf: Play the course as you find it, play your own ball, and do not touch it until you lift it from the hole.

“These basic principles fortunately are simple, logical, practical, and expressive,” he wrote. “By their recognition and by their application to specific Rules, it is possible to bring warmth and an understanding to the austerity and complexity of the Rules.”

Warmth is probably going a little too far but golfers might enjoy the game more if they grasped the spirit behind the Rules. The first thing to realize is that no other sport has such a varied playing field. For the most part, the only constants are the number of holes and the size of the cup.

“It is difficult to imagine the tremendous variety of conditions, objects and circumstances with which the Rules must cope in their worldwide application to the game of golf,” wrote Tufts, who also took note of the different forms of play and number of players (stroke play and match play in individual and partner formats). “Golf is a complex game, and we must anticipate the Rules will reflect that.”

Every course is different and not in the same condition, so there are many situations that arise that seem unfair, like when a player hits a perfect drive down the middle and the ball ends up in a sand-filled divot, as Payne Stewart did at the 1998 U.S. Open at Olympic on the 12th hole during the  final round. Where’s the harm in taking a free drop?

“Jack Nicklaus has asked the same thing,” says Van der Borght, who was a Rules official on the Futures Tour for two years. “Sometimes it feels like the guy is getting a tough break. When you see those fairways on tour from the blimp shots—they’re a divot minefield in some areas. But say we both hit drives down the middle and I catch a sand-filled divot and you’re in one without sand. I get relief and you don’t? Are you going to be happy about that? Overcoming adversity is part of the game.”

Roots and spike marks are also part of playing the course as you find it. A player can always deem his ball unplayable if he thinks he’s going to hurt himself on a root—some-thing perhaps Rory McIlroy should have done during the first round of last year’s PGA Championship at Atlanta Athletic Club. As for spike marks, just tap them down after your group has completed the hole and be glad you can repair ball marks. Up until 1960, the Rules didn’t allow it, but given the damage an unrepaired ball mark can do to a green, it made a lot of sense to change that one.

That same year the USGA also experimented with the stroke-and-distance penalty for a lost or out-of-bounds ball, dropping the penalty stroke. Tufts was not happy with this change as it violated another principle: The penalty should not be less than the advantage the player might gain from the respective Rule violation.

“The loss of distance only is often an advantage and not a penalty,” wrote Tufts. “It is, for example, always better to play the next stroke from where the last one was played than to play from where it went, when the shanked ball goes into the woods, the half-topped approach over the green into the deep rough, or the too strong putt across the green into a bunker. One of the great features of golf is that one stroke leads to the next, and when it becomes easier to recover from the adversity by the use of the Rules book than a golf club, the game will have lost all virtue.”

Of course, that doesn’t stop golfers from flooding the USGA’s inbox with a litany of questions and comments. Under the principle of treating like situations alike, another Rule that was changed this year was penalizing a player a stroke for moving a ball in a hazard while searching for it when it is covered by loose impediments such as leaves, just like outside the hazard. Within a week of the change, Van der Borght remembers seeing an e-mail from a man saying, “I’m really glad you made the Rule consistent between hazards and through the green, but you got it backwards: It should be no penalty everywhere.”

Says Van der Borght: “You can’t please everyone.”

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