In 1978, Tom Kite stood over a birdie putt on the fifth hole at the Pinehurst No. 2 course. He was an aspiring young professional with one tournament victory, and now he was contending in the final round of the Colgate Hall of Fame Classic, giving the much ballyhooed Tom Watson a run for the money.
When Kite soled his putter behind the ball at address, the ball moved ever so slightly, just the barest fraction of an inch, a movement undetected by anyone around him. Neither his playing partner, Howard Twitty, nor any of the gallery saw a thing. The movement would not have given him the slightest advantage or affected the outcome of his putt.
But Tom Kite knew what he had to do. He called a penalty shot on himself, much to the surprise of Twitty. Instead of a birdie try, now he was attempting to save par. He missed, made bogey and lost the tournament to Watson by one shot. "I called it because I play golf," says Kite, now a member of the Champions Tour. "If you don't play by the rules, you aren't playing golf. You're playing some abbreviated form of it."
Do you think a basketball player is going to call traveling on himself? Do you think a baseball player is going to say he didn't touch second base after trotting out his game-winning home run? Do you think a football player is going to tell a referee that he was holding on the play and should be penalized? Do you think a hockey player is going to say, "Excuse me, but I just slashed that guy and should be in the penalty box for two minutes"?
Golf is different. Yes, it's an odd game, subtly athletic and maddeningly mental. Players chase around a ball for hours at a time to deposit it in a small hole. The best players—a Tiger Woods or a Phil Mickelson or an Ernie Els—do so with awe-inspiring proficiency, and the worst players do it with stomach-churning ineptitude. But Woods and a 36-handicapper are bound together in one overriding way—by the Rules of Golf. The rules are central to the game and to the ethics of its players.
"The Rules of Golf are an incredible character reference," says four-time major championship winner Raymond Floyd. "If you lived your life by the Rules of Golf, you'll be a stand-up citizen. The Rules of Golf go right to your integrity as a person. Are you going to shoot a 6 and write down a 5? The first thing I told my two boys and my daughter when they started to play golf is that you count every swing and don't move the ball. Playing by the Rules of Golf shows respect for the game and respect for those you are playing against."
In the late '70s, Floyd was leading the Westchester Classic when he lipped out a birdie putt, the ball stopping six inches from the hole. His two playing partners, expecting him to make the next putt, turned away and walked to the next tee. When Floyd soled his putter, the ball moved a touch. He had held the playing honor on the previous hole, and his partners expected him to hit away first when he got to the next tee. "I made bogey," he told them. "The ball moved."
That's what makes golf so different from other sports. There are no zebras chasing every play, blowing whistles for the infractions that are constantly committed. Golf isn't about what you can get away with, and if you try to get away with bending the rules, you will only succeed in sullying your reputation.
There is a difference, of course, between tournament play and everyday play, between those who play for money or the glory of amateur triumph, and those who play for fun and the delicious prospect of taking two bucks off their best friend. But even in casual golf, the overall ethics of the rules must be respected, and egregious attempts to break them are usually met with disfavor. Above all, the game requires a player to police himself.
"You are the only one who knows," says Floyd. "Rules do not hurt players. They are there to help you and to keep the playing field even. Out of respect for the game, you should play by them."
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.
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.'"
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."
Jeff Williams is a contributing editor of Cigar Aficionado.