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Misconceptions About Rules

By Travis Lesser, USGA

| Sep 14, 2010
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For many people, the Rules of Golf must seem like a group of strict parents. Spend much time around them and you are sure to know what you aren’t allowed to do. Figuring out what you can do takes a little digging, however, which can prove troublesome.

This may be why learning the Rules thoroughly can be such a difficult task for many golfers. In many other games, the rules clearly state what you can and cannot do and mandate penalties when you do something you shouldn’t. And similar to a strict parent, the Rules primarily restrict a player’s actions, but they also include instances when those restrictions can be overlooked. This can lure a player into a state of mental paralysis when thrown into a situation where the player is unsure of his or her rights.

Because the Rules of Golf often list prohibitions, many golfers mistakenly believe that other actions are also prohibited. Some of these misconceptions stem from unfamiliarity with the Rules. Fear not, because in golf, if a Rule doesn’t say you can’t do something, then it’s usually safe to presume that you can. With that in mind, let’s clear up some frequent misconceptions about the Rules.

Let’s begin by addressing some of the fallacies regarding the flagstick and the hole. To start, not only is it permissible for a player to have a flagstick attended for a stroke played from anywhere on the course (this is specifically stated in Rule 17-1), but the player also may attend the flagstick for himself. A player incurs no penalty if he holds the flagstick while it is in the hole with one hand and removes it after playing a stroke at his ball with a club in his other hand, provided the ball does not strike the flagstick.

One question the Rules staff at the USGA encounters frequently is whether a player incurs a penalty for standing on the opposite side of the hole from where his ball lies on the putting green while reaching across the hole to tap in a short putt. Isn’t the player standing on or astride his line of putt in breach of Rule 16-1e? The Definition of Line of Putt states that the line of putt does not extend beyond the hole,  therefore, in this situation it would be impossible for a player to be standing on or astride his line of putt, as it does not exist where the player is standing. A player incurs no penalty for playing a stroke in this manner, provided the ball is fairly struck.

On the subject of a holed ball, let’s clear up another misconception. There is no penalty to anyone if a player’s opponent or fellow competitor fails to remove their ball from the hole before the player holes his ball. Once holed a ball is no longer a ball in play. It should be noted, however, that it is considered a breach of etiquette for a player to fail to remove his ball from the hole, especially after an opponent or fellow competitor has requested the player to do so.

Next, let’s have a look at movable obstructions, which are by definition, artificial objects on the course that are readily movable (i.e., any artificial object that can be moved with little or no effort). Although not specifically covered in Rule 24-1, the Rule permits a player to remove objects such as rakes, cart signs and water-hazard stakes, even when the player’s ball lies in a water hazard. There is, however, a significant restriction under this Rule that must be kept in mind. When a ball is in motion, while a player is permitted to move equipment of any player or the flagstick (whether it is attended, removed or held up), any other obstructions that might influence the movement of the ball cannot be moved or removed.

On the topic of equipment, a common misconception is that there is a penalty if players share equipment. A thorough study of the Rules of Golf will show just one Rule, Rule 4-4, that prohibits players from sharing clubs (unless the players are partners, in which case partners may share clubs provided the total number of clubs between the two of them does not exceed 14). Nowhere else in the Rules will you find restrictions on players sharing any other equipment. It’s OK to borrow a towel, a jacket, tees or even golf balls from any person, whether a spectator, an opponent, a fellow competitor or your partner. Further, there is nothing prohibiting a player from using a tee found on the teeing ground before starting play of a hole, even if that tee is broken.

Does an umbrella or a ball retriever count as one of the player’s 14 allowable clubs if it includes something resembling a golf grip? As specified in Appendix II of the Rules of Golf, a golf club is required to have a head and a shaft. Umbrellas or ball retrievers carried by players are not counted as clubs as these objects do not meet both of those requirements, even though they might have golf grips on them. While on the subject of grips, there is no requirement that a club even have a grip. The minimum requirement for a club is that it must have a shaft and a head; therefore, a player incurs no penalty for holding a club below the grip when making a stroke despite that often repeated misconception.

There are very few shortcuts when it comes to mastering the Rules, but remember that, if an action is not expressly prohibited in the text of the Rule, it is almost always OK. Just make sure you familiarize yourself with all parts of the Rule before coming to a conclusion, because an exception or note listed under the Rule might permit the exact action you are trying to execute.

Travis Lesser is a Rules associate for the USGA.