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By The Book

Golf's rules of the game confuse many players but preserve the sport's integrity
Jeff Williams
From the Print Edition:
Dennis Haysbert, Nov/Dec 2006

(continued from page 1)

The first Rules of Golf, 13 short and precise proscriptions on how the game should be played, were laid out by The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers in 1744 for a competition at what was to become the Leith Links. (Since 1891, Muirfield Golf Club in Scotland has been the club's home.) The rules grew and evolved greatly over the next two and a half centuries, with the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews and the United States Golf Association becoming their arbiters, and agreeing in 1952 to jointly analyze, modify and issue those rules. There are now 34 rules of golf, each with subsections that deal with various contingencies. The rules deal with the precise conduct of play, in both stroke and match play, with procedures and penalties associated with hazards, with equipment, with the ball, with free drops from obstructions and ground under repair. Along with the Rules of Golf, the USGA annually issues the Decisions of the Rules of Golf, which deal with rare and often amusing incidents and set precedents for handling such situations.

There are so many rules, so many decisions, because the golf ball has a mind of its own. It defies physics even as its flight is governed by what seem to be absolute principles of the science. If Einstein had played golf, he would never have discovered the Theory of Relativity because it doesn't apply. A ball manages to find its way behind water coolers, on top of drainage grates, inside the hole of a burrowing animal. And we all know how it seeks out water like a parched prospector.

The basic rules of the game are to play the course as you find it and play the ball as it lies. That's what The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers had in mind when it issued the original 13 rules. But even then, the group set a precedent with the 13th rule, deeming certain irrigation ditches and dikes not part of the course proper, and allowing for relief without penalty. That 13th rule was the seed for a whole crop of rules to follow.

"The basic philosophy of the Rules of Golf [is] to maintain the integrity of the game as it started way back when, and still keep it fair and updated," says Tom Meeks. Few people in the game have been more involved in the rules than Meeks, who retired in 2005 as senior director of rules and competitions for the United States Golf Association.

Meeks caused a tempest in a teapot at the 1996 U.S. Open, at the Oakland Hills Country Club near Detroit. Heavy rain the day before the championship had left the course saturated. Meeks was asked if the USGA would invoke a local rule that would allow players to lift, clean and replace their balls in the fairways. Meeks responded that he would never allow the U.S. Open to be conducted under the "lift, clean and cheat" rule.

The remark riled players, though Meeks didn't mean to imply that players were cheaters who would take undue advantage of the situation. "When golf is played under the umbrella of lift, clean and replace, I think the game of golf is being cheated," says Meeks. "I in no way want to imply that players are cheating. The players are merely doing what that particular format allows. I just think that lift, clean and replace is used way too often. Players think they should never have to hit a ball with mud on it. I think mud on a golf ball, occasionally, is part of the game. If the only way we could play the round was lift, clean and replace, then we wouldn't play."

The lift, clean and cheat uproar shows how seriously the rules, and the ethics of the game, are central to the sport. On one hand, the USGA refused to invoke a local rule allowing the competition to be conducted under unusual conditions because it was felt that the integrity of the game was being compromised. On the other hand, the players were insulted because they thought their integrity was being impugned. Above all, the debate centered on the character of the game as defined by its rules.

No one would impugn David Toms's character after the 2005 British Open at St Andrews. The night after his first round on the Old Course, Toms was troubled by what had happened on the 17th green. He had the nagging thought that the ball had moved after he soled his putter and that he had then stroked the ball as it moved, a violation of the rules that would require him to add two penalty strokes. Because he did not do that, he would be disqualified for signing an incorrect scorecard. Friday morning he went to the Royal & Ancient, which conducts the Open, and told officials what had happened. Videotape of the stroke was replayed, and none of the R&A officials could detect any movement of the ball. As far as they were concerned, the case was closed. But Toms had such nagging doubts about it, he withdrew from the tournament.

"My personal uncertainty about what happened really left me with no choice but to withdraw," says Toms. "A player is responsible for playing by the rules. If there is any question that you have done something wrong, then you have to call yourself on it."

Let's see. Derek Jeter turns to the home plate umpire and says, "My right foot was out of the batter's box on that home run. It doesn't count." Right.

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