The big news recently has been the proposed revisions to the rules of golf being implemented by the USGA and R&A in an effort to simplify interpretations and speed up the pace of play. This round of revisions is one of the most comprehensive overhauls of the rules in many years and is a welcome event. The fact of the matter is that the rules had become so cumbersome that much like the Biblical Pharisees, the USGA and R&A were the only people who really understand all the rules and interpretations. It seemed they forgot that golf is a game to be enjoyed by the participants instead of an ordeal of trying to avoid committing rules violations.
If I were to begin my own rules revisions, the first place I would start is the “stroke and distance” penalties for out-of-bounds and lost balls. In my experience, this penalty is one of the least understood, most severe and most ignored penalties in golf. It contributes to slow play, creates handicap issues and frankly, makes no sense from a logical standpoint.
With so many new golf courses being designed to serve the demands for real estate frontage, many more holes are now affected by having out-of-bounds on one or even both sides of the fairway. The most penal rule in golf – the “stroke and distance” penalty where the player hitting his ball out-of-bounds (or lost) must replay the shot from the original spot and add a stroke to the score has now evolved into a much more prevalent part of the game. For most golfers, this is roughly the same as adding two strokes to their score because they also lose whatever distance they would have gained from the point where they played to where the ball crossed the out-of-bound’s line.
If I am on the tee and there is a lateral hazard running along the left side and housing along the right side, why should I receive a far greater penalty for hitting my shot out-of-bounds to the right than I would for hitting it into the lateral hazard to the left? In the one case, I must replay another shot from the tee where I will then be hitting my third shot (assuming I declare the shot a provisional ball) but had I pulled the same shot to the left and it crossed the hazard 200 yards toward the green, I would also be playing my third shot but at 200 yards closer to the hole. Is one shot a worse offence than the other?
This is so illogical to the general golfing public that it has become a rule that is probably ignored more often than it is enforced in average weekend golf groups. Much like “taking a mulligan” on the first tee, many golfers have agreed within their groups to play all such situations as a lateral hazard. If a player hits one OB, they just drop a ball as near as possible to the point where it went out and add the penalty stroke. This obviously creates an issue with recording handicaps and with how they can play with other golfers who play more closely to the rules. Having a discussion on the first tee about which set of rules the group will play today is also against the rules just like “winter rules” are.
Not only does the stroke and distance provision create issues with scoring but it can add to the time it takes to play a round. Because most average golfers would rather have their fingernails pulled out than hit a provisional from the tee, what typically happens is, they go search for their ball until another group comes up to the tee and then they say, “I don’t want to hold up play so I’ll just drop one here and take a stroke.” In some cases, they will actually go back to the tee and play another shot after having wasted time looking, thereby incurring the wrath of their own group and the one behind. If all edges of property or lateral hazards were played the same way, play could proceed from the point of entry to the hazard or OB without the necessity of returning to the tee.
The rules have become so hard for most players to fully understand that it is intimidating for beginners to play in groups of more experienced golfers for fear of committing some infraction they didn’t know about. Many are scared to death of doing something wrong and having the other players think they are cheating. The end result is that getting beginning golfers to feel comfortable playing with others becomes a longer process with many deciding it just isn’t worth it. Limiting the growth of the game because of fear of the rules is not the direction we need to be headed.
If pace of play and retaining new golfers in the game are true objectives of our ruling bodies, these things should be considered.
Rick Robbins, ASGCA, has been a golf course architect for 43 years and an avid golfer for over 50 years. He’s a past president of the American Society of Golf Course Architects and has high regard for the ruling bodies of golf.