SI Vault
Let's Clear Up The Rules
Herbert Warren Wind
October 22, 1956
The writer struggles with an annual dilemma and comes up with a request to the USGA:
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
October 22, 1956

Let's Clear Up The Rules

The writer struggles with an annual dilemma and comes up with a request to the USGA:

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue

AT THE BEGINNING of every golf season I make it a practice, as most golfers do, to read through the year's new edition of The Rules of Golf, that pocket-sized manual which the U.S. Golf Association annually prints up for the benefit of all of us who play the game. Each year I find that I end up in exactly the same dilemma after making my way through the book by slow marches: the rules I have always understood give me no trouble; the rules I have always been hazy about, and would like to get straight for once, persist in remaining undecipherable.

The reason for my bringing this up is that, almost every place where my travels in golf took me this past season, I ran into 1) experienced officials sighing, with the ebullient resignation of free-lance nursemaids, what a sad paradox it is that so few golfers know the rules; and 2) countless golfers who would like to know the rules but who have found that, past a point, studying The Rules of Golf is no help whatsoever. This confusion engulfs not only the average weekend golfer but also the men at the top of the tree. I remember, for example, a very illustrative episode last April which took place in the lounge area of the players' dressing room at the Augusta National the afternoon before the first round of the Masters, when Ben Hogan pulled out his copy of the rule book and asked the officials present if by any chance they understood, since he didn't, the meaning of Rule 35-3-a. This rule bears the heading of Stroke Play—Ball Interfering With Play and reads as follows (the italics are those of the rule book):

"When the ball nearer the hole lies on the putting green, if the competitor consider that the fellow-competitor's ball might interfere with his play, the competitor may require the fellow-competitor to lift or play his ball, at the option of its owner, without penalty.

"If the owner of the ball refuse to comply with this Rule when required to do so, the competitor making the request may lift the ball, and the owner of the ball shall be disqualified.

"Note: It is recommended that the ball nearer the hole be played, rather than lifted, unless the subsequent play of a fellow-competitor is likely to be affected."

No two people in the small band gathered around Hogan interpreted the rule quite alike. However, a general agreement as to what the rule meant to say but didn't was arrived at after 10 minutes of intricate discussion. Hogan returned the book to his pocket with that enigmatic smile of his, apparently satisfied that he knew as much as could be expected of him.


Since this confusion is epidemic, what is needed (and has been needed for a long time) is a completely revised rule book, not simply a new edition. To begin with, many of the rules need to be rewritten, in straightforward language and not in the complex, flying-clause, quasi-legal terminology that has grown up. (Rule X of the 13 rules in the original 1744 code provides a good example of language that possesses a real directness: "If a ball be stop'd by any person, horse, dog, or anything else, the ball so stop'd must be played where it lyes." Modern rules, to be sure, must take many more contingencies into account, but it would be a gain if they could be stated with some of this old declarative spirit.) The rule book, moreover, would be vastly more readable and much easier to find one's way around in if a rather wholesale revision were to be made of the headings of many of the rules and the titles of many of the sections under which certain related rules are grouped.

Above all, a complete restudy should be made of the order and arrangement of the sections and the rules. For example, it would be of great service to golfers if, regardless of whatever other sections in which they might also appear, all the rules that apply to match play were to be gathered in one special section and all the rules that apply to stroke play in another special section. Nowadays, the average golfer seeking such information is compelled to leaf through numerous ambiguously headed rules—such as one called Disputes and Doubt as to Rights, in a section called Procedure—being offered little or no guidance as to where the desired information is located.

It would be an excellent advance also if some of the more complicated rules were explained by supplemental diagrams. (You will rarely see an official who attempts to clarify the beautifully buffaloing business of water hazards, regular, lateral, and parallel, without resorting to a pencil sketch.) The one over-all goal should be to produce a rule book which a golfer will find so clear and serviceable he will come to think of it as a pleasurable companion and not as the silent confederate of "fairway lawyers."

Continue Story
1 2