Soren Jacobsen: One to Rule Them All

If I Were King For Just One Rule…

Not too far back, Lexi Thompson was hit with a 4 stroke penalty. Well, two, two stroke penalties, actually.  I’d call that splitting hairs, but, given how it went down, splitting hairs seems to be the order of the day.  In the wake of that there has been quite a bit of discussion on the “call in” rule, most of it very negative.  I agree with pretty much all of that; however – perhaps surprisingly – if I were “golf king” for a day, and could change one rule… that would not be it.
For starters, it only affects an incredibly small sub-set of golfers.  I think if you are going to make a singular change, go for the broadest base possible.  Making a change that only affects players on TV is like making traveling two steps, unless you are in the NBA… oh… wait……. Moving on…
Before I jump in on Soren’s Big Change™, I’m going to start (very briefly) with something that isn’t, per se, a rule of golf.  But it is one of my biggest issues with the game.  It’s how the handicapping system works. Specifically the idea that your handicap is designed to reflect (as if this was really a thing) how you would play on your best day, rather than what you are likely to do on any given day (i.e. an actual average of your scores).  I’d be cool with a real average of your last 20 rounds, but just taking your top 10… meh.
I’ll also take a quick moment to highlight my favorite rule… 1-4 – “Any dispute as to the proper action which is not covered by the Rules should be resolved by doing what is most equitable.”  This concept is what brought me, full force, into golf and took it from “game I play” to “game I love” status.  It is emblematic of the other aspects of the game I most appreciate (self-assessment of penalties and the like) as well.
Having said all that, lets talk about the one rule I would change if I was “king for a day”  (i.e. e.g. AKA… the worst rule in golf).  It’s not the inability to move a ball that lands in a footprint in a sandtrap (although that sucks, on multiple levels); and it’s not the preposterous notion that a stray shot into ground under repair (in an area that might otherwise be out of bounds or unplayable) affords a free drop (usually back into an advantageous position) while a well struck ball that winds up in a sand-filled divot is somehow not sitting on “ground under repair” and therefore not eligible for relief (this sucks as well).
The worst rule (and frankly I’d be surprised if multiple authors don’t say the same thing) is the stroke and distance penalty for white staked out of bounds areas.  I was playing in a threesome last year when the following unfolded…
Player 1 (who might have been me) unleashed a mighty drive (prodigious power is probably an understatement, there might have actually been a sonic boom) over one of three consecutive ponds left of the fairway.  The ball bounced off the land bridge between the first and second water hazards and landed unceremoniously in the second pond… splash.  Red stakes abound in this area and the strapping young buck had to take a drop on the land bridge, about 215 yards from the tee box, and a penalty.  This left him about 200 yards from the green for his third shot.  He was sad.
Player 2 (who might have been my father… a bit of a show off if you ask me) by contrast prefered the right hand side of the fairway and his drive (which was decently hit, I guess… about 285 yards or so, but who really keeps track of that stuff anyway… booooring!) strayed about 3 feet into the unfenced backyard of a house along the course.  By rule, because the yard line was clearly marked as out of bounds by white stakes, player 2 – after having driven nearly 300 yards down the fairway – had to return to the tee box, assess a penalty stroke and hit his third shot from where he had started, lining up his third shot roughly 445 yards from the green.  He was a word that rhymes with “sad.”
For those keeping score at home… I lost maybe 10-20 yards of role and a stroke, and still had an realistic approach to the hole and, in fact, took a bogey.  My approach was about 10 feet off the green, I chipped to about 4 feet and tapped in for the same score I might have taken had the ball never gone in the water.
My dad on the other hand lost 285 yards, a stroke, and any real chance of even achieving bogey on the hole.  He striped his next drive close to 300 up the middle, hit a great approach to the center of the green, and two putted… for double bogey.  All this for the guy who hit, by far, the best shot off the tee of the group (twice, actually).
I have no problem with the stroke penalty for going out of bounds. In fact, I rather like that rule.  It’s much easier (and less costly) to take a stroke penalty than to try to navigate out of many an unplayable lie.
If you read the original rules of golf it seems pretty clear to me that the penalties assessed were designed less to be punitive, and more to assist in situations where the game couldn’t be reasonably (fairly?) continued.  “If your ball comes among watter, or any wattery filth, you are at liberty to take out your ball and bringing it behind the hazard and teeing it, you may play it with any club and allow your adversary a stroke for so getting out your ball.”  Honestly, the inequity in penalization between red stakes and white stakes has always bewildered me.
Further, all of this is before you apply the rule to casual play by your typical foursome of friends hitting up the local public 18 for an afternoon round.  It’s even worse there.  Play is already going to be slow and unsteady in this scenario, the last thing anyone needs is a player driving (or, goodness gracious, walking) down the fairway to discover they have a ball out of bounds and then trying to go back to the (certainly now occupied) tee box to hit again.
Best case scenario, play is going to be slowed even more.  Worst case… well, I’ve seen fights over less than this.  Just this afternoon I watched a guy go into a cursing rage and throw two different clubs because someone else wanted to play through his *VERY* slow group.
This also brings me back around to what I love so much about golf “Any dispute as to the proper action which is not covered by the Rules should be resolved by doing what is most equitable.”  Equity and fairness are at the core of the golf value system, at least the golf value system I have been brought up with; yet, this rule (and a few of the other “also rans” for the coveted “rule-Soren-hates-the-most” title) seem to almost embrace injustice.
What I’d like to see is everything played as a lateral hazard; a stroke, but not distance penalty.  Yes, under this modification, I might have been a bit more disadvantaged compared to my father in my example from above because I would have lost a bit of roll (and a ball!!!) by landing in water instead of private property.  However, that pales in comparison to the disparity the current system created for him.
A round of golf should be a test of who plays the best, not who happens to hit the less punitive obstacle when they randomly strike a ball poorly. If I wanted to spend four hours focused on risk avoidance I’d stop by my insurance agent, or perhaps my family doctor (not my dentist though, he suggests crazy stuff like flossing multiple times a day… and avoiding sugar… he’s clearly a quack).
If not for the issue of pace of play, I’d actually even be okay with everything as stroke and distance, really.  It’s the abject inequity in results for two shots that are essentially equally poor in quality that I simply cannot get on board with.
Maybe the way to lobby for this is to suggest it as a way to speed up play.  That seems to be good enough to suggest rule changes like not being required to pull the pin before putting or formally endorsing “ready golf.”
I think that’ll be my official position, “in the interest of speeding up the game by not having people return to the tee box to re-drive the hole after incurring an out of bounds penalty; and, as a way to ensure equitable treatment of poorly struck balls, all out of bounds/hazard areas will be treated as lateral hazards.”
Anyone care to second the motion?

Follow Soren on Twitter @fn2017

soren_jacobsen_bio_picSoren is a 50 year old (soon to be itinerant) golfer, pursuing his lifetime dream of playing a round of golf in every state (over the course of 50 days), blogging about it and ultimately writing a book from the experience.  Certainly still learning as much (if not more) about golf as he imparts; Soren thinks the biggest attributes you can bring to a golf course are enthusiasm, curiosity, and respect.

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