The Curious History of the O.B. and Lost-Ball Rules (Part 1)

The lie is dicey, but at least Tiger's ball is found and identified--what to do when balls or lost or O.B. has been debated with surprising controversy over the years

Years ago, while driving from New York City toward the eastern end of Long Island, I happened to pass an enormous sod nursery. For a half-mile or more, all I could see looking out the passenger window was green, close-cropped turfgrass, upholstered onto perfectly level ground and stretching deep into the distance. As any golfer in that situation would do, I quickly imagined a pattern of flagsticks arrayed across this landscape. I thought about the long, lusty golf swings I would take as I played from one of these unprotected targets to the next.

The next time you are feeling fed up with those ornery particulars known as the the Rules of Golf, pretend that you and a friend are playing my imagined version of golf on this mile-wide sod farm. In front of you are six target flags poking up from the endless fairway, color-coded white, red, blue, green, yellow and black, respectively. They are positioned in a grid pattern with exactly 600 yards separating one from the next. Each flagstick is secured in the center of a perfectly round basin measuring 10 feet across, and these basins are each exactly four feet deep. Their perfectly vertical walls are lined with stiff plastic, and the bottom of each basin is covered with a heavy layer of soft fabric (preventing balls that sail in from ricocheting out). There is no putting in this offshoot of golf, just the challenge of flying or skipping or even rolling the ball into these deep, wide basins.

You friend and you carry identical equipment–each has a driver, a 3-wood, a 5-iron, a 9-iron, several golf balls (his are white, yours are optic yellow) and a pocketful of tees. You set up a contest and place a $5 wager on the outcome. Your match will proceed from one target to the next in a preset order (blue-yellow-red, etc.), counting all strokes and determining a winner based on total strokes over the six-hole course.

What you don’t have is a rulebook. You carry neither the official Rules of Golf nor any variation of it. Due to the absolute simplicity of the field of play before you, nothing of the kind is needed. As Richard S. Tufts points out in his 1952 book, “The Principles Behind the Rules of Golf,” golf’s Rules have been written and rewritten “in the face of the overpowering variety of complicated situations produced by the conditions under which golf is played.” But your course conditions are absolutely devoid of either variety or complications. As you begin your match, all you and your friend need are the two basic principles behind the Rules, which Tufts identifies and summarizes as follows:

“You put your ball in play at the start of the hole,
you play the course as you find it, you play
only your own ball, and you do not touch it until
you lift it from the hole.”

Those 39 words, in Tufts’ view, might be all that reasonable people need to play most of their golf for most of their lives without mixup or disagreement–even on regular golf courses. On the sod-farm links, a golfer is brought home to that primordially simple mandate Tufts expresses. No need for a lost-ball rule, right?–there’s no place for your ball to get lost. With no woods nor water hazards, no out-of-bounds areas and no cart paths, there likewise could be no unplayable lies or obstructions or any other condition requiring relief. With no bunkers, a player couldn’t be penalized for grounding his club in one. With no greens, there could be no disputes about “repair of hole plugs, ball marks and other damage,” nor any problems with marking and lifting the ball, nor of “touching the line of putt.” Due to the course’s wall-to-wall unblemished condition, there could be no disputes about a player improving his lie or dislodging the ball when moving loose impediments.

Where do these observations about a hypothetical featureless course lead us? To a delicious irony, which is that golf’s most widely praised element–the variety and physical complexity of its playing grounds– is also the aspect of the game that causes its Rules to proliferate, subdivide, become reformed and altered, and eventually demand supplemental writings known as the Decisions.

Yes, the golf course is the culprit, and as you become better-versed in the Rules, you begin to look at golf courses and individual holes with that fact in mind. You still scan fairways and greens in search of an advantageous route to the cup, as you always have. But you also begin noticing the Rules ramifications of various land features, hazards and even man-made obstructions. They say lawyers are paid to imagine every difficulty and disaster that a client’s situation could give rise to, and then to figure out how to prevent and/or remedy each pitfall. Likewise with golfers who have a nice working knowledge of the rulebook.

For example, on a heavily treed course, a Rules-conscious golfer will recognize very quickly whether the woods are “clean” or knee-deep in fallen timber. He or she knows that, sooner rather than later, someone in the group will hit a wayward tee shot toward the treeline, bringing up the question of whether a provisional ball should be recommended. The natural optimism of a golfing foursome tends to gives rise to cheery responses like “We’ll find that one” when an off-line drive slips from sight into the trees. But if the player who hit the shot desires to play out the hole legitimately, teeing up a provisional ball might well be the prudent step. Otherwise, he might search unsuccessfully for five minutes (that’s all the time allowed under Rule 27) and end up in a state of limbo. This player will have no “ball in play,” to use three of the most cherished words in the rulebook, and he won’t be able to remedy the situation just by dropping near the spot where he thinks his ball was lost. Getting himself back within the good old Rules would mean hauling himself back to the tee and starting over, with a penalty stroke tacked on for good measure.

And let’s be realistic: 98 percent of all golfers don’t go back to the tee after failing to find a lost ball. A small minority will might hustle back and hit another, but usually only if they are riding in a golf cart and the group behind hasn’t come into sight yet. The players who would do it are the ones who are playing a money match and feel they have some slim chance of figuring in the outcome of the hole.

The issue in question here is “stroke and distance,” golf’s agonizing solution to the problem of balls lost or hit out-of-bounds, and when Tufts referred to the Rules as cold and harsh, he may have had this particular Rule uppermost in his mind. It is probably the one detail of the entire modern code that has most irritated golfers and turned them off to the idea of learning the Rules and making a commitment to play by them.

Next: Part 2 — Stroke-and-Distance—Even the Mean Old Rules Makers Questioned its Harshness

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