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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 2)

At the 1993 Kemper Open, Tom Kite was leading and playing with Grant Waite. On the fourth hole, Waite's errant approach ended up in ground under repair. In taking the relief without penalty, Waite dropped the ball so that his stance was still within the marked area. The rules mandate complete relief of both the ball and the stance, and there would be a penalty stroke if Waite played where he originally dropped. Kite alerted him to the problem. Waite avoided a penalty stroke and went on to win the tournament by a stroke—over Kite. "He was about to do something wrong and I stopped him," says Kite. "That's what you do when you play golf. It's what you must do."

The Rules of Golf seem like a maze to the everyday player, and you would be hard-pressed to find anyone playing casual golf with a rule book in his bag. For that matter, you would be hard-pressed to find a professional carrying one. You often see a professional player call for a rules official, even in what seems a simple situation. With so much at stake, a professional player would rather ask an official what to do than just go ahead and do it. Besides, when an official tells a player to do something, the player can't be penalized if the official is wrong.

Seve Ballesteros has always had the reputation of taking advantage of all the rules, often by trying to intimidate rules officials into favorable decisions. During a Masters tournament, Ballesteros hooked his drive on the 13th hole into the woods to the left of Rae's Creek. The area was a bit muddy and Ballesteros asked the rules official assigned to the hole for relief. That rules official asked a senior rules official for an opinion, and that official just happened to be Sir Michael Bonallack, secretary of the R&A and someone intimately familiar with Ballesteros. Bonallack was only interested in conferring with the first official and pretty much ignored Ballesteros. Without a club, Bonallack addressed the ball, then looked at Ballesteros and said, "Play it."

Some rules appear so simple that it would seem impossible to violate them. The Rules of Golf allow a player to carry a maximum of 14 clubs. How difficult can it be to count the clubs before the start of a round? Ask Ian Woosnam. A 15th club cost the Welshman a chance at the tournament he most coveted, the British Open.

In 2001, Woosnam was a stroke off the lead entering the final round when he played his tee shot on the par-3 opening hole at Royal Lytham & St Annes Golf Club. It was a beauty, finishing six inches from the cup for a tap-in birdie, tying him for the lead and inciting the spirits of the partisan home crowd. When he got to the second tee, his caddie, Miles Byrne, suddenly felt sick to his stomach. There was an extra driver in the bag, meaning that there were 15 clubs, and that meant a two-stroke penalty. A crackling walkie-talkie message was overheard: "Take care of Woosie, he isn't feeling too good, he just was penalized."

Woosnam had been practicing with two drivers and Byrne had neglected to remove one of them. The situation was exacerbated by two things: first, Woosnam had his tee time wrong and, as he was practice-putting, a fellow player told him he should be on the tee. He rushed to the tee in a bit of confusion. Second, the opening hole at Lytham is a par 3, so a driver would not be considered. Woosnam certainly did not intend to carry 15 clubs, but as in all the rules of golf, intention means virtually nothing. The only time that intention counts is when you intend to hit the ball with your swing. If you miss-hit, you have to count it.

Tiger Woods didn't miss the ball when he swung at it on the ninth hole at the Firestone Country Club in August during the Bridgestone Invitational. He just missed the golf course. His wild 9-iron landed on the macadam pathway in front of the clubhouse, bounced on the clubhouse roof and rolled off the other side where it was picked up by a food worker. Curiously, it wasn't out of bounds. Curiously, the clubhouse was played as a temporary immovable object (like a grandstand) and Woods was given line-of-sight relief about 100 yards from the hole. He made bogey.

Woods was involved in a situation during the 1999 Phoenix Open when his ball came to rest behind a rock weighing several hundred pounds. The rock would normally have been treated as a loose impediment and could have been moved, except it was too big for Woods and caddie Steve Williams to roll. A group of spectators volunteered, the rock was pushed aside and Woods made a birdie on the hole. The USGA subsequently issued a decision banning a player from getting assistance, except from his caddie to move a loose impediment.

Tom Meeks, now a director at the Western Golf Association, was officiating at the 104th Western Amateur tournament in 2006 when the question of intent was raised by a young player. While taking his backswing in a bunker, the player had the suspicion that he had hit a leaf ever so slightly, which is not allowed under the rules of golf. First, a player cannot ground his club in a hazard, and he cannot remove certain impediments that are considered natural to a hazard, such as a leaf or twig. He also cannot strike these impediments with his backswing, because it would be considered an improvement to the swing path. In doing so, a player incurs a penalty stroke. Because the player was uncertain of the situation, he called in a rules official, who, in turn, called Meeks to meet him at the scorer's tent at the end of the round.

"The young man said that he possibly heard a sound that might have been his club striking the leaf on the backswing," says Meeks. "I said, 'If you hit it, it is a violation, if you didn't, it's not.' The young man told me that he did not intend to strike the leaf and I told him that intention has nothing to do with it. You either did or you didn't. He said then that he would have to accept the penalty, that he would sleep better instead of worrying the rest of his life. I said, 'I agree with your position and admire you for taking it. That's what golf is all about.'"

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