They’ve been playing baseball for 150 years and yet before every major league game the umpires and managers get together at home plate to go over the ground rules for that particular event. The same thing happens in golf. Our weekend games are just individualized versions of the game of golf that has been codified by rules for 272 years.
In many cases, the rules we play in our casual games have little in common with tournaments that are played in strict adherence to the “Rules of Golf.” So much so that you may be unwittingly violating those hallowed regulations every time you play. Maybe you will recognize some of these…
1. “What club did you hit there?”
Asking your playing partners what club they hit in a friendly match is just the neighborly thing to do. Especially after a good shot; it’s almost common courtesy. In tournament play this is considered “advice” and the giving of such is a two-stroke penalty, loss of hole in match play. If you REALLY must make a club selection based on someone else’s play, you can always mosey over to his or her golf bag and look in to see what club is missing. There’s no penalty for research.
2. “I’m going to hit another one.”
How many times have you hit a shot bound for the woods or water that may or may not ever be seen again? The standard procedure is to wordlessly pull another ball from your pocket or say something like, “I’m going to reload.” It’s assumed that if the original ball is found it will be played and the second ball put back in the bag, but if you don’t specifically state your intention that the second ball is a “provisional,” then that ball becomes the ball in play with a stroke and distance penalty, regardless if the first ball is found.
3. “I’m just going to hit on.”
Many times you’ve been off the green yet closer to the pin than your buddy who’s on the putting surface, and just gone ahead to play to get everybody putting? It’s only common sense to help the pace of play. It’s also technically against the rules if you didn’t ask to play “out of turn.” There’s no penalty in stroke play, but in match play your opponent can demand that you replay a shot in the proper turn.
4. “There are stones in this bunker. I’m not going to hit those.”
Who wants to scratch the clubface of a $150 sand wedge just to play a bunker shot? Most players understand if you toss the stones out of the trap first, but check the rulebook and you’ll find that’s a penalty. Inside a hazard you cannot remove loose impediments, so a ball resting against a twig or rock must be played as it lies. The rake is an exception – it can be moved. While we’re talking about the bunker, have you ever chunked a sand shot, left it in the trap, and then swung again to show yourself how you should have hit through the sand? Or angrily stabbed the sand with your club? That’s a penalty for grounding your club before the next shot that’s waiting on the other side of the bunker.
5. “This sprinkler head is in my way, I’m just going to move the ball to the side.”
A sprinkler head that interferes with a swing or stance means a ball can be moved without penalty – but not a sprinkler head that’s only in the line of play. So if a ball you would normally putt from the fringe is behind a sprinkler head, you’ll want to re-holster that putter and grab a wedge.
6. “I’m using my water ball on this hole.”
Tournament golf requires a “one ball condition” meaning that you must begin and end play with the same make and model golf ball. That means no range balls when you have a tricky carry over water and no switching from low spin balls on the tee to high-spin balls in the fairway.
7. “I’m just going to bend this branch back a bit.”
Not only is it a crime against nature and frowned on by society, but killing or injuring any part of a living thing to make way for your golf swing is a penalty. And, no, you can’t help your cause by slashing away vegetation with your practice swing, either. If in a hazard, you’re also not permitted to let your club touch high grass before you initiate your swing – that’s considered grounding the club.
8. “Let’s play winter rules today.”
If there are adverse conditions, a course may declare “winter rules” (preferred lies) for the day. Otherwise, there’s no provision in the Rule Book for “winter rules,” which is just as well since every group of golfers has its own interpretation of what the “special” rules will be. Essentially, winter golf rules are a permission slip to put your hand on the ball – a violation of the primary rule of the game which is to hit the ball, find it, hit it again, and never touch it. If, like in the final round of the PGA Championship at Baltusrol, local conditions allow the player to “lift, clean, and place” that only applies to balls in the fairway.
There are precious few rules that permit the handling of the ball during a round of golf. One is identifying a ball in heavy rough. If you must pick up the ball to verify that it’s yours, make sure you do so in the presence of your playing partner who can vouch that the ball is returned to its original position. Another situation is if your ball away from the green is interfering with another player’s shot. If you’re asked to lift and mark the ball, you may do so but you’re not allowed to clean it.