Playing by the Rules …. or not

I could count on four hands the number of people I see in the course of a season who ground their club in a sand trap, either not knowing the rule, not realizing they’re doing it, or not giving a damn.  In many cases, they don’t get the ball out of the trap on the first try anyway.

Should I then ruin their day further by saying, “Uh, hey sport, that’s a two-stroke penalty for grounding your club.  Sorry, bud, but like, rules is rules, eh?”

I was once called out by an opponent in a club championship qualifying round for knocking off a couple of teensy-tiny sprigs of pine while practice swinging in the woods, prior to moving over to address my ball and play the shot.  I had totally forgotten that rule.  I was compelled to take six penalty strokes, and marked an 11 on my card.  I have since discovered that I actually didn’t need to take these penalties, as I hadn’t improved the path of my “purposeful” swing at the ball.  But then, having assessed myself the penalties, and later submitted the scorecard, I could have been assessed a two-stroke penalty for signing an incorrect scorecard.

I’ve played in several qualifying rounds where holing out (i.e., making every putt drop) has been mandatory, but fellow players have inadvertently picked the ball up within inches of the hole… so used are they to taking gimmes.  I’ve pointed this out to them, they’re always aghast at their mistake, but none have ever offered to assess themselves a penalty (probably two strokes minimum, if not outright disqualification).  Being the reasonable adult that I am, and more interested in maintaining goodwill than being a first class jerk, I’ve never reported them.

In matches, medal competitions, and just friendly games, I’ve probably inadvertently broken different rules of golf 10,000 times in my life, and seen others do so 20,000 times.

And I consider myself a pretty serious golfer, who knows most of the rules.

My point is The Rules of Golf are ridiculous.  Stupid, confusing, picayune, unfair, irrelevant, archaic, and virtually unenforceable.

To this last adjective, I was delighted to see this week that Those Who Make, Defend, and Enforce the Rules of Golf… officially known as the R&A and the USGA, but more appropriately described as “The Dinosaurs” in my view… have announced an immediate change in the enforcement practices of one rule.   And that is, essentially, that a player cannot or will not be penalized for an unintended rules infraction if they or their playing partner did not notice it, but a television viewer did and called it in.

[EDITOR’S UPDATE: The revised rule is still unclear about whether it would affect situations like the ruling against Lexi Thompson, which Jim refers to below.]

This has happened recently, as we know, in three major professional championships.  In two cases (Anna Nordqvist and Lexi Thompson), the affected player did not win the tournament even though both were in a position to do so.  In the other one, Dustin Johnson played several holes not knowing whether a television review would find him guilty of an infraction or not; fortunately, DJ had the presence of mind to bear down, hold his lead, and win the event.  In all three cases, the Dinosaurs showed bad judgment, in my view, but most of all demonstrated once again that the rules are stupid, confusing, picayune, etc.

I’ve ranted recently here (and many of you would say, enough) on rules.  You probably think I would do away with rules entirely for golf, but no, not at all.  If there were no rules, the game would be pretty pointless… what would stop someone from simply walking his ball to the hole and dropping it in?

But I do think the rules need to be completely rewritten, not just reviewed and tinkered with.   Here’s why:

  • A new set of rules – reduced, simplified, and with common sense and comprehensibility applied as the primary objective – would make the game so much easier for people to play to a uniform standard. Which they don’t now (see the beginning of this column for reference).
  • Tournaments, whether club, inter-club, amateur or professional, would be contested in a far simpler fashion – hopefully never requiring post-round analysis, trial and possible retroactive judgment.
  • Players should and would be encouraged to point out pending infractions by other players, even opponents, in a spirit of good sportsmanship and not punishment (or good fortune by misfortune). (For example, if Lexi’s playing partner had noticed Lexi’s inadvertent mis-marking, she should be allowed to say, “Hey Lex, I think you made a mistake”, and Lexi should be allowed to correct it without penalty.  Then again, I’d be re-thinking the whole ball marking rule to erase the penalty that Lexi drew.)
  • If we want to ensure the future health and increased participation in the game, let’s make it a fun and enjoyable experience, especially in competitions, versus the stress pit it often is now. I’m not saying people are avoiding golf today because of the rules, but the rules sure don’t make the game very approachable for someone who wants to get into it.

I realize that my arguments will go no further than those of you who are reading this column.  And many of you may disagree with my liberal approach.

But unless there’s a wholesale overhaul and simplification of the rules, I can guarantee that I and the other 99% of golfers who incur infractions through lack of knowledge, interpretation, or attitude, will continue to do so.

Thereby continuing to make a mockery of a bad system.

Jim Deeks
Jim Deeks has been writing for Fairways for over a dozen years. He is a former Executive Director of the Canadian Open and Canadians Skins Game, and currently the Executive Producer of CANADA FILES on PBS.

3 thoughts on “Playing by the Rules …. or not

  1. If the rules are changed to be more sensible then even the purists can’t complain. They will still follow the rules to the letter, but the rules are now reasonable.

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