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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 3)

It is, but the rules are not always so simple or complete. Take the situation that occurred in the 2006 Senior PGA Championship. During play in the middle of the day, the Oak Tree Country Club's irrigation computer malfunctioned, causing sprinklers to go off on three holes. Mike Reid was playing one of those holes, the 14th, and his approach shot had finished just off the green. When he hit the ball, it was dry. When he got to the ball, it was wet, and it had not rained. So he asked rules official Bruce Sudderth if he could mark his ball and clean it. If his ball had been on the green, then he would have been entitled to mark and replace it. Sudderth ruled that he could not think of anything in the rules that would allow Reid to lift, and Reid carried on. But later Sudderth discussed the situation with several other officials, first to confirm that he had done the right thing, then to wonder if the rule ought to be changed to allow a player to clean his ball in that situation. A player could do it if his opponent spilled sand on his ball in the process of playing a bunker shot, but that's the only stipulation in the rules.

"It's a good example of how the rules can evolve," says Ken Lindsay, a Champions Tour rules official and a member of the USGA Rules Committee.

"We all agreed that Suddsy had done the right thing. But we thought about the ramifications of it. What if the sprinkler head coming on had actually moved the ball? That's not covered under the rules." Lindsay drafted a proposal for consideration at the next USGA Rules Committee meeting, which, he said, often has a 400-page agenda.

Meeks, so adamant that the ball be played as it lies, is particularly happy that a certain rule proposal has never been adopted. The issue of sand-filled divots in the fairways has circled around the PGA Tour for decades, and often comes up in USGA rules discussions. During the 1998 U.S. Open at the Olympic Club's Lake Course, Payne Stewart's drive on the 12th hole ended up in a sand-filled divot and he went on to bogey the hole, ultimately finishing second to Lee Janzen. Meeks was following Stewart's group and timing them for slow play. When he went out to inform Stewart that the group was on the clock, Stewart said, "We have to get relief from these sand-filled divots."

In early 1999, when Meeks ran into Stewart at a rules seminar in Orlando, Florida, Stewart wanted to talk about a number of issues, including the sand-filled divots. "I said, 'Payne, have you ever practiced shots out of sand-filled divots?' He says, 'You're crazy.' I say, 'I'm serious, why don't you do it?' He says, 'I'm not doing something like that.'"

Later that year, after the tragic death of Stewart in a plane crash, Meeks gave a rules seminar at the Tournament Players Club at Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra, Florida, and Tour player Fred Funk showed up. Funk was asked about the sand-filled divot issue. Meeks relates Funk's answer.

"He said, 'At a PGA Tour players meeting with commissioner Tim Finchem, Greg Norman says, "Mr. Commissioner, I think the Tour should adopt a local rule that we get relief from sand-filled divots." Payne Stewart pops up and says, 'I disagree. I think we should practice those shots.'"

When Meeks heard that, he had a heartfelt response: "All I could do was look up to heaven and say, 'Thanks Payne.'"

But even Meeks, who doesn't want to be known as a rules curmudgeon among the members of his club in Indianapolis, knows that everyday players often disregard the rules. "I gave a talk once and a woman came up to me and says, 'I'm going to continue to play golf the way I play, and I do break a lot of rules.' I said, 'Ma'am, I want you to respect what I'm saying about the rules. On the other hand, I'm going to respect what you just said. If the only way you can play is to break some rules, the only way you can have fun playing the game, then you go ahead and play that way.' I don't want anybody to give up playing the game because they don't like the rules."

Yet Tom Kite will tell you that if you are at all serious about golf—and especially if you play it competitively—you have to play by the rules. If you don't, you aren't really playing golf, and worse, you aren't being a stand-up person. "There's one thing about golf," says Kite. "If you get the reputation as a cheater, nobody is going to want to play with you. It's absolutely essential that if you are a golfer, you know the rules and play by them."

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