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

Red means lateral, as in this normal example. Too often the red stakes or paint line a dry but gnarly area that catches too many shots.. relief without loss of distance is all about speeding up play

Concluding this three-part post on the stroke-and-distance penalty for lost balls and balls hit out of bounds, one other vital point should be made. It concerns the “distance” element of the rule. In golf, distance is a sacred concept. We whack every range ball in the jumbo practice bucket striving to achieve it. We spend the children’s college fund on exotic drivers in the name of distance. We don’t like having it taken away from us.

In being penalized for stroke-and-distance on O.B. or lost balls, it’s true we are compelled to go back to the spot we played from, but that spot isn’t relevant because it represents a yardage penalty, it’s relevant because, at that very moment, it stands as our only valid position on the golf course. It’s our last known coordinate. The lost-ball hitter will often plead, “Can’t I just drop one?” But where is he going to drop it? In the general vicinity of the general area where he generally thinks the ball ended up? That way lies nothing but abuses and self-deception.

After hitting a drive out-of-bounds, the so-called “distance” we retrace includes a fair amount of sideways distance. Often that distance we are forced to retrace brings us out of the swamps or badlands and back to civilization. After hitting a ball that ends up lost outside all the strategically placed hazards, we are like students in the dog-ate-my-homework scenario who request partial credit. It would be more accurate to say “stroke and re-position.”

However, this entire defense of the penalty for lost and out-of-bounds shots depends on the golf course being designed, built and maintained in a way that cooperates with what the Rules envision. Why did the USGA relax the O.B. and lost-ball penalty in 1960? The answer is course design. As suburban houselots encroached on land abutting private clubs and as more and more courses were being built as part of housing subdivisions, the acreage lining many of America’s fairways became fenced off or otherwise inaccessible. Tufts, himself, addresses this phenomenon directly. “But apparently most golfers play the game on courses located in real estate developments or congested suburbs, where the out of bounds stakes parade down the side of many a fairway,” he observed.

Well, these days instead of white out-of-bounds stakes relieving that design problem, courses simply pound in red stakes, to indicate a lateral hazard. As in: Hit the ball off-line, go find it, drop it back on the course alongside the spot where you found it.  

As usual, the features of the golf course–or in this case the land surrounding the course–are the basis for a rule or set of rules being written or altered. Tufts disliked the 1960 alteration to the lost-ball and out-of-bounds penalty, and in writing about it he used the memorable (and oddly prophetic?) phrase, “tiger country,”  to describe the kind of out-of-bounds area the stroke-and-distance rule justly contemplates.

Given a big, brawny course with plenty of original acreage, went his thinking, the places you would have to hit your ball in order to lose it or have it turn up O.B. would be a long, long way from the fairway. In the event that you found this wickedly wayward ball–or you chose to ignore the O.B. stakes–your remote, hostile surroundings would very likely enforce a worse penalty than stroke-and-distance, as in hack / hack / ricochet / ricochet / curse the day you were born.

So when a golfer playing on a hemmed-in golf course smacks a big drive that drifts slightly off-line and ends up 20 paces off the fairway but beyond the white O.B. stakes, he is far removed from  “tiger country” and well justified in asking why he can’t just drop his ball near the boundary line, under penalty of one stroke.

That option, as it turns out, was the codicil to the 1960 distance-only penalty instituted by the USGA. Specifically, the USGA’s rulebook allowed for a local rule treating out-of-bounds only (not lost-ball when the ball is most likely to be somewhere in bounds) under which the club or course could pick out its least fair O.B. sites and permit golfers who have hit into them to drop a ball within two club-lengths of the spot where their ball last crossed the O.B. line, taking merely a one-stroke penalty. Within a few years, this experiment was abandoned, as well. Eventually it was given a de facto resurrection, in the form of the red stakes that have been installed along so many fairways in recent years to indicate a lateral hazard.

Where does that leave the average golfer? If he happens to play most of his golf on cramped, narrow courses, it leaves him in a disadvantageous situation vis-à-vis the lost-ball and ball out-of-bounds Rules. As consolation, it can only be said that some 5,000 new, modern courses have been built in the U.S. over the past dozen or so years. Which means a golfer’s opportunity to play a course that adapts itself well to the Rules is much increased.

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