Even the Mean Old Rules Makers Questioned Stroke and Distance

Find the ball or take that walk of shame back to where you played from, and take a penalty stroke for your troubles... a fair verdict?

If it’s any consolation–and I would say it should be–this stroke-and-distance penalty we consider so harsh has been fussed with, abandoned, rewritten and dragged back onto the drawing board more often than a flawed Broadway musical. Kenneth G. Chapman, in his comprehensive and highly readable 1997 history, The Rules of the The Green, devotes a half-page timeline to the question of how the 18th- and 19th-century Scottish rulebooks (several clubs had their own rules, before the code established by the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews began to assume precedence) treated the lost-ball circumstance. Among the Edinburgh, Bruntsfield and St. Andrews golfing societies, there were perhaps two dozen zigs and zags between the penalties of stroke only, distance only, stroke-and-distance and loss of hole.

No less an eminence than Bernard Darwin, grandson of the scientist Charles Darwin and Britain’s finest golf writer, condemned stroke-and-distance for lost balls and and balls out of bounds. Darwin served as chairman of the R&A rules committee during the Yalta-like convocation that unified American and British rules. Unification took place in 1952, and Darwin seized on the occasion to suggest that distance alone be the penalty for a lost ball, a ball out of bounds–even for a ball in an unplayable lie. When a player’s drive went out of bounds or was lost, the player could return to the place whence he struck it, drop a ball and be lying one, playing his second. “Darwin was a great writer but not a terrific rules maker,” commented his U.S. counterpart, Joseph C. Dey, in discussing the suggestion.

Under Darwin’s version of the rule, there would still have been lots of backwards progress on the golf course, as players learned the fate of their errant shots and circled back to the spot where they had struck them. Players competing in matches would probably be more inclined to circle back under Darwin’s preferred penalty. Freed from having to add a penalty stroke, they would feel much more likely to figure in the outcome of the hole, despite a bad start to it.

Though Dey openly disdained Darwin’s distance-only notion, no fewer than eight years later he was forced to witness and, as the association’s executive director, help carry out, exactly such a Rules change. Not to sound like a Rules prude, but it is just short of astonishing to think that the O.B and lost-ball rules could have been softened in this fashion a mere 50 years ago. The change, as it turned out, survived only one season. By ‘61, the stroke-and-distance penalty was back on the books.

It is not difficult to understand why stroke-and-distance is the correct penalty for O.B. and lost balls, but you need a dose of perspective to make the leap. To begin with, the Rules are hell-bent on treating the two situations of lost ball and ball out-of-bounds equally–”Like situations should be treated alike,” as Tufts and others have expressed it, and the commonality between an O.B. ball and a lost ball is that the ball is abandoned, or “taken out of play,” as a Rules person would say. There are only two other conditions in which this happens, those being a ball unplayable in a water hazard and a ball declared unplayable by the player. (Note: when a rules theorist says “the ball being taken out of play,” he’s not talking about a particular Srixon 3, he’s referring to the ball’s situation or its basic location on the course).

Over time, a consensus formed around the belief that balls sunken in water hazards and balls declared unplayable by the player are not of the same essential nature as O.B balls and lost balls. For good reason, too, since, as Tufts points out, “water hazards are a regular playing feature of the course and usually very much more in the line of normal play than out of bounds or conditions which lead to lost and unplayable balls.” Again dispensing with all the historic arguments and counter-arguments, let it suffice to say that the rules-igentsia eventually concluded that a ball declared unplayable tends to be similar in nature to a ball that is unplayable in a water hazard. Those two situations branched off from their cousins, lost ball and ball out of bounds.

As for the latter two, they represent a halt in the game’s basic flow, its natural, linked action, which is the golfer’s progress from his last stroke to next stroke. That linkup (sometimes expressed in the wry version of golf instruction: “Hit it, go find it, hit it again”) grinds to a halt when the ball is lost or out of bounds. To the Rules makers, the golf course is a big, wide field with smooth, close-cropped turf plus a few ponds and bunkers sprinkled in. How, in that setting, could you manage to lose your ball? Now, you say you hit it out of bounds?!? When there was all that area in bounds to shoot for? When we put it that way, the O.B. ball and the lost ball do seem more punishable offences than, say, a ball in a bunker–even a ball in a pond or a creek.

The penalty attached to O.B and lost balls could never be stripped of the distance component and settled with just a one-stroke penalty. If it were, long hitters could blast away with impunity on tight driving holes, focusing on raw length only, safe in the knowledge that, for the price of two strokes, they are guaranteed a playable lie way up the fairway. Without so much as touching his ball down on playable ground, this basher would be in the enviable position of needing a wedge approach and two putts for a respectable bogey.

Next: Pound in Some Red Stakes and Return to the Strange, Slothful Year of 1960

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