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“The rules are your friend,” remember that, fellow golfers. “The rules are your friend.”
The Rules of Golf are created by the United States Golf Association and published in a small booklet updated every four years. Golf rules were established to sort out difficulties and differences of opinion as to how the game is played. They are the official arbiter of the game.
Can I move my golf ball away from a fence? Check the rules. Who putts first? Check the rules. What if I miss the ball completely? Does that count? What do I do when my ball goes into the lake? How many strokes can I take to get out of a bunker?
Some golfers just want to play casual golf and not even keep score. Fine, but why take your clubs with you? Just put on your sneakers and go for a walk.
Golf is a game and scoring is part of any game or competition. What if football players just threw and kicked the ball around at will? What if bridge players played any old card?
The difficulty arises in golf because there are so many variables.
Think about it. How many different things can happen in a bowling ally? Gutter ball, strike, spare, foot going over the line.
Tennis, football, soccer and basketball are more complicated and require referees to determine whether a ball is in or out of bounds, if a foul has been committed, if the right things happened in a given amount of time over a given distance.
Yet that seems simple when you compare those sports to the game of golf. The playing field for golf is 4 or 5 consecutive miles of wandering terrain. Tees, fairways and greens flow over and around swamps, rivers, creeks, forests, individual trees, gulches, cliffs, shrubs and flower beds. Bunkers guard the greens.
Each course has several cuts and types of grass and each has its own rules. There are rules for putting, hitting shots from the rough and fairway, rules on the tee box and rules for shots in the hazard.
You can hit out of a bunker or a water hazard if you want to, but you can’t ground your club or take a practice swing. You cannot move branches or stones or natural debris.
Basically, golfers strike the ball with a club (only 14 allowed in your bag) until the ball drops into a hole. This continues for 18 holes and then the game is over. Low score wins.
But golfers do not play alone in many cases. They may play as a team. They might play with partners, or in individual matches. If it’s a team event, it might be a best ball, better ball, shamble, scramble or point (Stableford) tournament.
The whole process is dizzying and there are no referees.
I spoke with Jason Cox of the Carolinas Golf Association. Jason is the Director of Junior Golf for the CGA and often runs rules seminars for juniors and adults.
“A golfer plays on different courses around the state, the nation and even the world,” he said. “Each of those courses is different with different conditions. If every course were the same, like a tennis court or a bowling alley, we wouldn’t need all these rules.
“What happens in Minnesota when it snows? Is snow a loose impediment or casual water? The folks in Florida obviously do not have to worry about it, but those in the North do. We need a rules because golfers experience different conditions on different courses around the world. The Rules of Golf are universal.”
According to several magazines and Internet sources, there are 18 Most Misunderstood Rules of Golf. Most of them revolve around situations where the golfer has gotten into trouble. If everyone played down the middle of each fairway and landed on the green, there would be few rules needed.
However, most of us are not scratch players and we hit our golf balls into water hazards and bunkers. They come to rest on cart paths and bridges and roadways. They lean against buildings and walls and tree trunks. Sometimes we hit them so long and so strong that they disappear from view and are never seen again. That is why we have rules.
Let’s imagine you slice your drive deep into the woods. You hit a provisional ball and, by golly, someone spots your ball in the woods and it’s under a bush. Can you hit the provisional?
No, according to the rules. Once a ball is found, the player is obligated to identify it and then play it. You cannot declare a lost ball.
It seems unfair. Here’s your provisional in the middle of the fairway, but you must play the ball that is under a bush. You swing at it, but it doesn’t come out. Swing again, and it skitters under a broken tree limb. Impossible shot, so you take a drop, then chip out to the fairway. That little misadventure cost you five shots, but hey, that’s golf played according to the rules.
What happens if you go out to play right after a big rainstorm and your ball lands in a trap filled with water?
You can lift the ball and drop it in the bunker with no penalty. Maybe there’s a spot that only has an inch of water, not 6 inches. If there’s no place within the bunker without water, you will incur a penalty by dropping out of the bunker.
If you decide to take the stroke, the drop must be in a place where the ball lies directly between the hole and where the ball is dropped. You may move it back as far as you want, keeping in that line.
In most cases, if there had been a storm, a local rule probably would have defined lifts out of flooded bunkers, but without that local rule you must take the penalty.
Many golfers play with “water balls.” These are lesser, well-used balls they put down when they must hit over a water hazard. This is totally illegal. You must play a hole with the same ball, unless the original golf ball becomes damaged. Hitting a tree or cart path can put a scrape on the ball.
Some people have a “putting ball” used only for putts. That’s illegal also. See Rule 15-A in the Rules of Golf, if you don’t believe me. The penalty for substituting another ball illegally is loss of hole (in match play) or a two-stroke penalty (in medal play).
The rule goes further. If your ball is in a ground under repair and you can see it, you need to pull it out, clean it off and then hit that ball or incur a penalty.
Marking a golf ball with arrows or other markings to show direction is perfectly legal. Putting your ball into a hole that already has a ball in it is also legal. That’s because the hole was over when the first golfer holed out and his ball is no longer in play.
The Carolinas Golf Association conducts rules seminars throughout North and South Carolina each spring. The website for the CGA has the list of seminars, but you need to pre-register. Go to www.carolinasgolf.org for more information.
Jason told me CGA officials often visit clubs as guest speakers to discuss the rules of golf. Please contact the CGA at (910) 673-1000 for more information about this service.
Get a Rules of Golf booklet for yourself and carry it in your bag. Many clubs have copies available to their members or you can order one from the USGA, www.usga.org.
On that same website, you can get lots of information on rules. They have golf rules discussions, videos of actual rules infractions and the rulings that took place afterward, and even a rules quiz. Totally cool.
Golf Gab groaner
“I’d like to see the fairways more narrow. Then everyone would have to play from the rough, not just me.” —Seve Ballesteros
Elsa Bonstein is a golf columnist for The Beacon. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her at facebook.com/elsa.bonstein.