Rules Reminders for the Scramble Foursome

It is disappointing to look up “scramble” in the wonderfully researched Historical Dictionary of Golfing Terms and find no mention of the four-player, one-ball competitive format now so prevalent in charity tournaments and corporate outings. At least according to popular memory, scramble golf (originally known by such colorful terms as “Miami Scramble” or even “Hullabaloo”) gained popularity in the 1950s and ’60s. Golf was enjoying a spike in popularity and country clubs for the middle class were cropping up throughout America’s new subdivisions. Behind the pillared facades of the old-line clubs, tradition-bound members disdained the scramble as a mindless romp–even an outright corruption of the game.

Examining this format, in which the members of a four-player team all play shots from the same spot and only the best shot is selected and advanced, they saw something other than golf. But the scramble caught on, despite (or in part because of?) the disapproval of the elites.

It is ironic that this variant format, which began as a once-a-year novelty to spice up a club’s tournament calendar, has become the version of golf some people play in 10 rounds out of every 20. To boost turnout for the company picnic or the hospital fund-raiser, planners set up a golf event and load their invitation lists with occasional players. Since a scramble depends on just one player in the foursome at a time hitting an acceptable shot, it works nicely with semi-competent participants.

But highly competitive scramble tournaments are also common, including one well-known national tournament, the Oldsmobile Scramble, which involved thousands of amateur players and concludes with a high-pressure final stage at which the winners and runner-up teams earn expensive prizes.

A recent news item about scramble golf and Rules-abidance brought many a nod of sober recognition from people who have played with skill and fervor in scramble events only to come up–in their estimation–shockingly short of victory. The news story was about a California tournament director who shifted his standard scramble arrangement so that each four-player team went off the tee paired with another team. In other words, eightsomes. His contestants, who expected an exceedingly slow day of golf, were surprised to find that their rounds took scarcely longer than usual.

The original idea for having scramble teams play together was borne of complaints and suspicions that the 10-under and 12-under and even 14-under scores scramble teams report–gross scores, that is, no handicaps subtracted–are simply too good to be true. And that jaw-droppingly low scores would become far less prevalent if these rounds were witnessed by competitors.

In any tournament you enter, listen with care to the pre-round instructions: This goes for scrambles  in particular, given their tendency toward shotgun starts that foster a pre-round atmosphere heavy on festivities and light on communication. Know which tee markers are to be used, how many drives each player is required to contribute, and other related requirements. If no instruction sheet is provided, make hand notes of the relevant data on the back of your scorecard.

Identify your ball and note the kind of balls your teammates are playing: It is possible that you and two other players could hit into a lake on the first tee, then sigh in relief when your fourth player hits one into the rough. But if that player doesn’t remember what brand of ball he played and another ball lies near it in the rough, the group will be compelled to take a penalty stroke and drop behind the water hazard, per Rule 27.

Identifying among the four balls in the group is also an issue, especially given how common it is for players to use the free balls provided in scramble-tournament gift packages. These balls will almost certainly be the same make and model, which can create a big problem in the late going, when one player hasn’t contributed his requisite one to three drives and he hits his Titleist 2 so that it disappears over a little ridge and stops right next to the Titleist 2 hit by a player whose drive quota has already been reached. Either ball can be selected for continued play, but now the team is uncertain whether it has made progress in satisfying the requirement about the number of drives each scrambler must contribute.

Remember which tee markers are in use: Along with their tendency toward excessive team spirit, the members of a scramble foursome also tend to follow each other around blindly. In a two-versus-two match, golfers sense that critical eyes are watching as they mark their putts or tee up for a drive. As a result, they look around and think twice about what they are doing. In a scramble, the “A” player’s mistaken choice of the white tees over the blues might easily go unquestioned.

If one, two, or three players hit from the wrong set of markers, the remaining player or players can move to the correct set and bear the responsibility for knocking one in play. If all four hit from the wrong place, the only choice is to record a two-stroke penalty, then hit from the correct place. This error must be corrected, however, before the next set of drives is hit (or, in the case of the round’s final hole, before all players have left the green).

Don’t tap in your tap-ins when others have yet to attempt the putt: Once your group’s 20-foot birdie putt is survey, analyzed and ready to be played, a scrambler who has putted poorly enters risky territory when he goes first and leaves his ball right on the lip. Often this player, walking over to fetch his ball, will be overcome by the desire to tap it in. If you fail to warn him off, that tap-in counts for par and the group must move on the next hole.

 Be precise with your lifting, marking and replacing: The scramble is an anathema to the basic Rules that call for playing one’s ball as it lies from tee to cup without touching it along the way. So much so that its myriad instances of lifting and replacing on the fairway cannot even be formally addressed. But rather than have the basic scramble procedures give rise to laxness for laxness’ sake, use care in the process of searching, selecting, lifting and playing the stroke. For example, it borders on the pathetic to see a ball scooped off the fairway by a man in a moving golf cart, who, upon further discussion of the prospects for playing from that location versus another, motors back toward where he did his scooping and tries to replace the ball in some kind of proper manner. He should have stopped, got out of the cart and at least marked the ball with a tee before lifting it.

Even in scramble play, do the Rules of Golf the favor of holing out “with the ball played from the teeing ground unless a Rule permits [you] to substitute another ball.” This is required by Rule 15-1, which is one of the game’s cornerstone stipulations. You are allowed to pick your ball up from its lie and move to the spot where your team’s best shot landed, but you can’t use a red-hot “distance” ball off the tee, an all-purpose spin-and-distance ball from the fairways and then a soft, tour-style ball for extra feel off the putter. No one is watching except your friends and buddies, but the Rules say you can’t do it. And the Rules, in their own subtle way, are always watching.

One final aspect of being prepared is simply reminding yourself and the people you are playing with–whether playing an earnest match or in a tournament setting such as a company-outing scramble–that everyday nonchalance vis-a-vis the Rules is being put aside and a heightened awareness adopted. That means marking your ball and reminding others to do the same, Watching carefully on the green for a moved marker to be replaced in reverse fashion, and generally having the rulebook ready for consultation–generally being a “good scout.”

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