The rules of golf are truly an amazing body of work surpassed only by the bible and the works of the great Bard himself. While many consider the extraordinary complexity of the rules an impediment to growing the game, study them as I did as a teenager and they can work in your favor.
For example, when playing in the Hargrove Trophy I knew that when our opponents, without a word being spoken, whacked away a putt and inadvertently knocked my ball into the hole, I was deemed to have holed out in four rather than the five I would have taken had I needed to putt out. Our astonished (adult) opponents did not believe me but my interpretation was confirmed on our return to the clubhouse. Fortunately it was not the deciding factor as we were three up anyway.
When I was 14 and playing in a pro-am, I explained to my professional partner that I could take relief from casual water in the rough even if, as was the case, the nearest point of relief was on the fairway. Although my partner, he maintained I couldn’t improve my lie so dramatically and insisted I play two balls. Ah, how sweet it was when it was confirmed that ‘through the green’means anywhere though the green and that, although my lie improved enormously, my understanding of the rules was correct.
While playing in a money match at Pebble Beach many years ago, I pulled my tee-shot onto the rocks on 18 and watch it bounce around but missed it splashing into the ocean. However, when I got to the spot where I thought it had landed, there it was sitting on a flat rock leaving me a clear shot back onto the fairway.
In my haste and joy at finding the ball, albeit in a hazard, I quickly cold topped a four-iron into the Pacific. Then, as I climbed back to the fairway to take out another pill, I saw a ball in the rough with my initials clearly marked on it. I informed my playing partners that I had hit the wrong ball from the hazard and would now be playing my second shot with my original ball. They came over and confirmed it was my ball but were sure I was now playing at least my fourth shot.
I hacked out my original with a nine-iron and duly made par. They protested, howled and whined but, after consulting the pro in his shop, my call was pronounced correct. Since you cannot touch your ball in a water hazard to identify it, there is no penalty for playing the wrong ball.
Our understanding of the rules should be ever increasing as the ‘case law’ expands daily. For example, playing in a major amateur event recently at Royal St Georges in England, the competitor in front of me hit no fewer than five balls off the first tee. Each one plunged into the three-foot high grass that lined both sides of the narrow fairway and offered little hope of finding anything without a bloodhound. The first he hooked very short and left; the next two went high and right; the fourth was another snap hook and the fifth popped up right.
How many minutes in total is he entitled to look for his five balls – 5,15 or 25 minutes?
The answer depends on where he hit the balls and, while he could theoretically have got a full 25 minutes (or five minutes for each ball) in this case, he was allowed 15 minutes as the two short left and two long right were both in the ‘same general area’. Fortunately, he found the first with just seconds to spare.
My once comprehensive knowledge of the rules has long since faded and today I would have to do what all the tour pros do and seek advice from someone else. Strange isn’t it, tour pros play golf day in and day out and ought to be able to quote the rule book like a preacher quotes scripture, but invariably seek advice as to what to do next.
If studying the 60-page book of the rules sounds like too much work, don’t worry, apart from tournaments, no one plays by the rules anyway!