Bobby Jones once noted that match play was always an exciting duel when the stymie was part of the game and felt its elimination was a mistake. “More than anything else, it points to the value of always being closer to the hole on the shot to the green and after the first putt,” he wrote in his book, Golf Is My Game.
The stimy, as spelled by some of the early golfers, was part of the game’s original 13 rules, which were drawn up in 1744 by the Company of Gentlemen, later called the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers. The only time you could lift the ball after you teed off was when two balls were touching or you lifted it out of the hole. The rule was amended in 1775 so that the ball closest to the hole could be lifted if it was within six inches of the other ball.
The stymie occurred when a player’s ball blocked another player’s path to the hole, but was outside six inches. You had no other choice but to risk hitting your opponent’s ball in your path. Your remedies were to take your niblick and go over the intruding ball or putt around it with some kind of side spin.
Jones must have practiced avoiding the stymie a lot based on his success in using his wedge to jump over another ball in old film clips. Looking back in history, Jones had good reason to like the stymie. He used it against Cyril Tolley on the first extra hole in the fourth round of the 1930 British Amateur at the Old Course in St. Andrews, Scotland and went on to claim the title.
Other players hit down on the ball with their putters to try and jump over the other ball, but would sometimes knock their opponent’s ball into the cup. If you hit an opponent’s ball in match play, you lost the hole. The penalty for failing to get out of a stymie in stroke play was two strokes, but early on this was quickly changed.
Even in the early days of golf, there were some who campaigned against it. The Society of St. Andrews Golfers abolished it in a meeting in 1833, but defenders of tradition managed to get that rule rescinded a year later.
Because of the element of chance, the stymie was never that popular, especially in the United States where stroke play was more popular. The executive committee of the United States Golf Association started talking about modifying or abolishing the stymie between 1931 and 1934 after hearing complaints from several regional golf associations. The appeals were all denied. The USGA tried to talk to the R&A about doing something, but to no avail. In 1938, the USGA altered its rules to allow any ball positioned within six inches of the hole to be lifted if it interfered with another ball. The PGA of America did away with the stymie at the 1944 PGA Championship. When the merits of the stymie also met opposition across the pond, the two ruling bodies eliminated it entirely in 1952.
While stymie will never be part of match play, there is a stymie putting game around today that short game guru Dave Pelz introduced. Each player gets two putts. The object of the first player is to try and make the first one (worth three points) and try to block his opponent with the second one or both in some cases. One point is awarded for each ball a player has closest to the hole. If the second player knocks the other player’s ball into the hole, the first player gets the points. However, he could knock the other ball farther from the hole, too. If the second player covers up the first player by making an ace, he gets his points plus the other player’s points. Honors are decided by who wins the points on the previous hole. The first player to a designated number, usually 21, or for a pre-determined amount of holes wins it’s a fun game. Try it sometime