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Monday, December 30, 2013

Rule #13: Play It As It Lies, or: Hit The Ball. Go Find It. Hit It Again.

Golf is a simple game.  There are only 34 official rules.  So playing a round of golf within the rules should be fairly straightforward.  Right?

Charley Hull, the fearless teenager who put on such an amazing demonstration of golf in her match against Paula Creamer at the 2013 Solheim Cup, offered the best explanation I've ever encountered of how the game of golf is to be played: Hit the ball.  Go find it.  Hit the ball again.


Charley Hull captured the essence of Rule #13, the first Rule of Golf I learned when I picked up a golf club: The ball must be played as it lies, except as otherwise provided in the Rules.  And it's also the rule most often breached in small, quick, secret acts not intended to be seen and rarely reproved: on the fairway, a little toe nudge here or there, just to edge the ball out of a divot some thoughtless nabob failed to repair; in the rough, a small finger flick to shift the ball onto a tuft of grass as the debris is cleared away; in a hazard, just the slightest tamping down of the area behind the ball.  What's the harm done?

That depends on one's perspective.  I was teaching my grandson, Michael, to play several summers ago.  We'd worked through the basics and it was time to take a run at the local Par 3 course.  I invited my handyman Mark, one of my favorite golf buddies, to come along.  Things went along fairly well for the first two or three holes.  Then Michael's ball went to the rough, and Michael decided it would be easier to take his shot if the ball wasn't nestled in the middle of a bunch of unmowed weeds, barely visible, so he picked it up and placed it in a much nicer position.  I said nothing.  I'm the grandmother.

Mark felt no such constraint, and in his best Southern drawl growled out seven words that put Michael back on track: Boy, play that ball where it lies.

Even in the short grass, where the golf ball is most easily played and life is most easily lived, there are bumps, hills, small imperfections and subtle challenges of terrain.  The fun of golf, for me, comes in managing and navigating those irregularities.  I delight in the invitation to battle issued by hills and sloping fairways.  I understand that not every golfer feels this way.

One of my favorite fairway shots follows my tee shot on the 1st hole at Bodega Bay.  The golf course is built on the Pacific Coast cliffs and takes full advantage of the rugged northern California terrain, and the first hole begins with an elevated tee shot onto a fairway that twists and winds uphill among a rolling series of bumps and hills to a green surrounded by yet more hills.  If I get a good tee shot, I stand a chance of making the green in regulation only if I can get through those twists and turns and then get a good bounce off one of those hills surrounding the green.  That happens for me occasionally, and when it does I feel as though I've conquered the world!

The geometry of that 2nd shot differs fractionally, depending on where my tee shot lands.  I've played the hole many times, and each 2nd shot on the first hole at Bodega Bay has been a different experience.  This subtle variation captures the essential mystique of the game that draws me back, again and again.

I take far more pleasure from successfully lofting my ball over the edge of a green-side bunker than I do moving it one club (driver, of course) length in the fairway to escape the danger of a short chip, and I'm willing to take the risk of the short chip to enjoy the rush of pleasure that comes with the successful shot.

And if I land in the bunker?  Or miss the green because I misdirected my shot?  The world will end?  I'll be asked to sit at another table, alone, for lunch?

I argue, unsuccessfully, every year at the first meeting of the Star Fort Ladies Golf Association that the move-the-ball-one-club-length-in-the-fairway local rule should be suspended and we should play the ball down like big girls.  We don't move the ball when we play elsewhere in tournaments.  Why are we allowing ourselves to legally cheat on our casual play days?  Why are we abrogating the pleasure of successfully executing the difficult shot?  My motion generally dies for lack of a second.

Beyond the short grass, playing the ball as it lies presents new challenges.  At my home course areas around the large trees are heavily mulched with a combination of pine straw and wood chips.  I try to stay away from those places because extricating my ball from that stuff while playing it as it lies is filled with danger.  Tiger Woods knows what I'm talking about.  Those little balls can twitch and wiggle and wobble -- or was that a roll? -- very unexpectedly when we try to ever so gently clear away a pine cone, a stick, a clump of moldy leaves that threatens to obstruct our clear swing.  Tiger isn't the only golfer to declare that the ball didn't move as the obstructions were cleared.

On the surface, Rule #13 is one of the more straightforward rules in golf.  There are some sticking points however.  It's the as otherwise provided in the Rules that causes trouble.

What if I accidentally move my ball while I'm looking for it in thick rough?  What if I need to stamp down the grass in the thick rough in order to get a solid stance and a clear shot?  What if I need to use my club to steady myself as I climb down into a hazard to hit my ball?  What if I need to break a small branch in order to get a clear swing?

If you don't know the answers, or if you just want to test your knowledge of the Rules, or if you simply want to review some of the arcane clarifications of the 34 simple rules, take the USGA Rules Quiz.