Sunday, 12 September 2010

The Precise Language of the Rules of Golf

Part of the Rolex advertisement from the R&A Rules of Golf 2008-2011 book

There is a very useful warning in the opening pages of the Rule book;
The Rule book is written in a very precise and deliberate fashion. You should be aware of and understand the following differences in word use:
• “may” (e.g. the player may cancel the stroke) means the action is optional
• “should” (e.g. the marker should check the score) means the action is recommended but is not mandatory
• “must” (e.g. the player’s clubs must conform) means it is an instruction and there is a penalty if it is not carried out
• “a ball” (e.g. drop a ball behind the point) means you may substitute another ball (e.g. Rules 26, 27 and 28)
• “the ball” (e.g. the player must lift the ball and drop it) means you must not substitute another ball (e.g. Rules 24-2 and 25-1)
The more that you get to understand the Rules the more you will appreciate the relevance of the above advice. Here are some more instances of where some of the above words are relevant;
May – Except when their ball is in a water hazard or a lateral water hazard, a player may take relief from interference by an abnormal ground condition, such as casual water or ground under repair, without penalty (Rule 25-1b). However, unless there is a Local Rule specifying otherwise, the player may also play the ball as it lies.

Should - The responsibility for playing the proper ball rests with the player. Each player should put an identification mark on his ball (Rule 12-2). So, it is not mandatory to put a mark on your Titleist Pro V1s, but please take my advice and never play a ball that you have not put your personalized identification mark on; you will undoubtedly save many strokes over a season by not playing ‘wrong balls’.

Must – be careful if a Local Rule says that you must take relief from staked trees. If you think that your ball is in a good lie under the staked tree and then touch any part of the tree with your next stroke you incur the general penalty of two strokes in stroke play or loss of hole in match play, because you have not taken full relief from it as required by the Local Rule.

A Ball – You may deem your ball unplayable anywhere on the course, except in a water hazard, and it is solely your judgment, no-one can challenge you that your ball is playable. Rule 28 provides three options for relief, all of them under penalty of one stroke. Each of these options refers to the fact that a ball is to be dropped. In other words the player may continue play with a different ball from the one that they deem unplayable. The obvious reason for this is that although the player may be able to identify their ball in its unplayable situation (e.g. in a cactus bush or out of reach up a tree), it might not be reasonable for them to retrieve it without difficulty or delay. However, a player may substitute their ball under this Rule even if their original ball is available to them.
The ball – Conversely, when the Rule specifies the ball, the player must continue with the original ball. An excellent example of this was in 2008 when Ian Poulter, having marked his ball on the putting green after a poor putt, attempted to whisk it up. Unfortunately, he didn’t hold on to it and it ended up in the adjacent water hazard. Even though his ball had been marked on the putting green the Rules require the player to replace the same ball. If Poulter was not able to retrieve his ball he would have been forced to take a penalty for an incorrect substitution. Fortunately, his personal physio was following his round, waded into the water and located the ball within a couple of minutes.
The words in the Rolex advertisement above are apposite in relation to the wording of the Rules of Golf; Meticulous. Precise. Intensely detailed. I hope that by regularly visiting this blog I can help you to obtain a better understanding and knowledge of them.

Good golfing,

Barry Rhodes

My book, ‘999 Questions on the Rules of Golf’, will help demystify the Rules of Golf for you. Order a personally signed copy and have it posted to anywhere in the world for just $19.99 (or £12.99, €14.99). It makes an excellent gift, or prize for your golf competitions. Click here for more information.


Mike said...

I love reading your rule examples. Not using the correct language or the precise meaning of a word leads to some really bad mistakes. I think the definition section of the rule is book is super important, but most people never turn to that section. Enjoy your blog.

Barry Rhodes said...

Thanks Mike,

It's always good to receive positive feedback from readers of my blog.


Charles said...

After looking at the list of critical words above I was surprised to see that the word "shall," employed in the imperative sense, wasn't included. Checked the first 23 rules by doing a ctrl+f on each page and didn't find a single shall. Shall is frequently employed in regulations, so I thought I'd find it in the golf rules, somewhere. I shall discontinue my search.

Barry Rhodes said...


My understanding is that 'shall' and 'must' are synonymous terms denoting mandatory requirements and that the two words should not be used together in the same document, as it could raise questions about whether different meanings are intended.