Wednesday, 29 October 2014

The Rules of Golf Are Not Always Black and White

Anyone who takes an interest in the Rules of Golf will know that, despite the preciseness and complexity of the 34 Rules and the 1,200+ Decisions on the Rules, there are still many subjective areas, some of which may require an understanding of the intent of the player before a ruling can be assessed.

One example of a situation for which a subjective ruling may have to be made is when a player claims that they are entitled to relief from an immovable obstruction, or abnormal ground condition, that only interferes with their intended stroke if they adopt an unusual stance, or direction of play. Normally, they would not be able to claim relief just by adopting an unusual stance for the stroke, because of the exception that is quoted at the end of this paragraph, but there are instances where it may be justified, because an unusual stance is reasonable in certain circumstances. So, if a player’s ball lies immediately behind a tree they may choose to play it left-handed, or in a direction that is not towards the hole. If a nearby path does not interfere with a stroke to the hole, but does come into play if the stroke has to be made in a different direction, or with a different stance, then it may be reasonable for the player to be seek relief. However, in many cases, it is these Exceptions to Rule 24-2, Relief from an Immovable Obstruction, and Rule 25-1, Relief from Abnormal Ground Condition, that prevent the player from taking unfair advantage of relief by claiming that they will have to use a non-orthodox stance or swing, or play in an unlikely direction.

A player may not take relief under this Rule if (a) interference by anything other than an immovable obstruction makes the stroke clearly impracticable or (b) interference by an immovable obstruction would occur only through use of a clearly unreasonable stroke or an unnecessarily abnormal stance, swing or direction of play. (The exception to Rule 25-1 relating to interference by an abnormal ground condition is similarly worded. I have highlighted the key words).
The purpose of these Exceptions is to prevent the player from fortuitously obtaining free relief when it is clearly impracticable for them to make a stroke because of interference by something from which free relief is not available. In the diagram above, I have tried to illustrate a scenario where there is an artificial path close to the tree that the player’s ball lies behind. In adopting their normal right-handed stance the path does not interfere, but the player claims that to extricate their ball they would have to adopt a left-handed stance for which the path would interfere, allowing them to take relief without penalty by dropping a ball within one club-length of the nearest point of relief that avoided the path, not nearer the hole (point X in the diagram). In many cases, after taking the drop away from the path, the ball would come to rest where the tree was no longer in the line of play and the player could play their next stroke right-handed, having turned an ‘impossible’ stroke into a relatively straightforward stroke, without incurring a penalty. So, before the player takes relief the marker, fellow competitor, opponent or official must decide whether, in their opinion, the left-handed stroke would be reasonable in the circumstances. The question that has to be asked is if the path was not there would the player have decided to play to the side of the tree with a left-handed stroke, meaning that they would have to reverse the club face (assuming that the player did not carry a left-handed club). Most players would not have the ability to be certain that they would; a) hit their ball using this unnatural stroke, and b) advance their ball far enough to ensure that their next stroke was unobstructed. (Note in the diagram that if the player misjudges their left-handed stroke their ball could end up in dense trees). So, in many (most!) cases, the stroke would be unreasonable and relief would not be available. However, it has to be accepted that there are rare occasions where the 'manufactured' stroke could be deemed reasonable and relief could then be taken from the path if it interfered with the stance for the left-handed stroke. The ruling is obviously subjective, depending on such factors as, the position of the ball, the size of the tree, the line of play to the hole, other adjacent features (e.g. trees, bunkers and water) and the ability of the player; scratch players are obviously more likely to successfully execute this type of stroke than high handicappers. Where there is doubt, the ruling should be against the player taking relief. If they disagree, they should play a second ball, carefully following the procedure laid down in Rule 3-3, which includes reporting the facts to the Committee as soon as the round has finished.

Some other potentially subjective areas of the Rules include;

  • Where did a ball that comes to rest in a water hazard last cross the margin of the hazard?
  • Was the area of intended swing improved to the advantage of the player after they had knocked down some leaves from an overhanging tree branch during a practice swing (see this blog)?
  • Did a conversation about weather conditions (public information) constitute advice because it may have convinced a player to change their club selection after it started?
  • Did a player address their ball by grounding their club immediately behind (or in front of) their ball just before it moved (see this blog)?
  • Where was a ball at rest when it was mistakenly played by another player in a different group?
  • What was the exact position of a ball at rest on a putting green when it was moved by a fellow competitor’s ball played from the fairway?
  • Did a player cause their ball in the rough to move as they approached it, or was it due to the wind, gravity, or vibrations as a train passed?
  • Does placing a ball in a pocket breach Rule 22-1, which states that a ball lifted because it is interfering or assisting in the play of another ball may not be cleaned by the player, unless it was lifted from the putting green (see this blog)?
  • A player may not repair a spike mark that is in the vicinity of a hole until play of the hole has been completed. How far does this area extend?
  • And perhaps the most subjective of all golfing situations, has a player unduly delayed play by their slow play?
I hope that readers will see that not all Rules situations are black and white; players must examine all the facts and make their best judgement. Where there is doubt seek the opinions of others and do not try and take advantage.

Good golfing,


As your season gets under way in the Souther Hemisphere, why not focus your Club or Society members on the Rules of Golf by running a social event including a Rules Quiz. I have done all the hard work for you and my three quizzes (General, Juniors and Match Play) include all the questions and answers, with references to the relevant Rules to prevent arguments. Click here for details.

The above content is strictly copyright to Barry Rhodes © 2014 and may not be copied without permission.


Anonymous said...

On this same rule, say the players ball goes well off the fairway, to the right, between 2 very close bushes after a poor shot. The bushes are irrigated by an above ground pipe and this lays some 6 inches to the right of the ball. The player says that because the shrubs force him to play back onto the fairway at right angles he is entitled to free relief from the irrigation pipe. He assesses his NPR as 18inches left of the pipe (closer to fairway) and drops within a club length, so his final lie with no penalty gives him a straight shot to the green.
Given Decision 24-2b/16 can this be correct, as it gives an unfair advantage on the player who has played a good straight shot and stays on the fairway?

Barry Rhodes said...


If the shot between the shrubs back onto the fairway would have been a reasonable stroke to make if the ground pipe had not been there, then the player was entitled to take relief from the pipe. If, after taking the available relief, the player had a more favourable shot towards the hole this is his good fortune. Sometimes the ball rolls into a less favourable position after taking relief under the Rules.

In Decision 24-2b/16 the player's ball was "clearly unplayable" due to the roots, so relief was not available from the immovable obstruction.


Jon Heppell said...

Who determined, in Decision 24/2b 16, that a ball is "clearly unplayable" ?

Does not Rule 28 establish that the player is the sole judge as to whether his ball is unplayable. How can it therefore be "clearly unplayable" if he chooses not to deem it so ?


Barry Rhodes said...


You seem to be missing the point of the Exception to Rule 24/2b/16. A player may not claim relief from an immovable obstruction (or abnormal ground condition) if it is clear that anything other than the immovable obstruction makes a stroke at the ball clearly impracticable or unreasonable. If the player and their marker cannot agree on this the player must seek a ruling from a referee or a Committeee member, or play two balls to the hole, as in Rule 3-3.