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Saturday, January 25, 2014

Rule #23. Loose Impediments vs Movable Obstructions?

I'm convinced that the pros have as much trouble with Rule #23 as the rest of us.  Did Tiger's ball wobble in place or did it roll at the BMW Championship?  There was a bit of confusion at the Pure Silk-Bahamas LPGA Classic about stones and shells in bunkers.  Stones were movable and shells weren't? Hummm.  Since when can anything -- loose impediment or obstruction -- be moved in a hazard?  Read on.


At my home course we have a standing Roots & Rocks Local Rule.  We have an abundance of both at the Golf Club at Star Fort!  Balls can be moved off roots and rocks without penalty.   Not dropped.  Moved.  Period.

What do these three situations have in common?  Why, The Rules of Golf, of course, which however murky and obfuscated they may be, always apply unless the local Committee says otherwise.

I was recently lining up a putt when I noticed a small pile of tree stuff around the edge of the cup that was very likely to distort my putting line.  I was conflicted.   Could I brush it away and clear my line?  Would that constitute touching the line of my putt?  Or testing the surface?  I asked Alma.  She told me to read the Rules of Golf.  That was very helpful.  Alma knows the Rules forward and backward.  I don't.  I held my breath, brushed the stuff off my line, and waited for Alma to call the penalty.  My ball dropped, Alma didn't utter a word but gave me an almost imperceptible nod of her head.  Wheew!  I guessed correctly.  But guessing wrong can be costly.

What's the difference between a loose impediment and an obstruction, movable or otherwise? and Why does it matter?

Let's start with the difference:

Loose Impediments are natural objects, including but not limited to leaves, stones, twigs, branches, goose poop, insects, and trails insects leave as they make their way around golf courses, providing that the objects are not growing, solidly embedded, or affixed to your golf ball.  Sand and soil are loose impediments on the putting surface but not elsewhere.  Snow and natural ice can be loose impediments, but they can also be casual water, at the player's option.  Dew and frost are not loose impediments.

Obstructions are artificial things like pieces of cart path, inconsiderate smokers' cigarette butts, and manufactured ice that can be moved without unreasonable effort or without unduly delaying play or without causing damage, unless they are out of bounds or have been declared an integral part of the golf course.

We can take relief without penalty from obstructions that we cannot move.  If the ball moves, it must be replaced, as closely as possible, to its original position, dropped when through the green or in a hazard, placed when on the green.

Out of bounds markers (stakes, fences, walls, railings, and the like) are not movable obstructions.  But wait.  The Committee can make a Local Rule declaring a movable obstruction to be an immovable obstruction.

This all seems fairly clear.  The basic distinction between an impediment and an obstruction hinges on the difference between a natural object and an artificial object.  If the Golf Gods created it, it's an impediment.  If one of us created it, then it's an obstruction.  I can keep those two categories fairly clear in my mind.

But what about that huge piles of leaves the grounds crew piled up behind the 16th green last fall?  Was it a natural object or a movable obstruction?  Leaves = natural object and therefore loose impediment.  Pile of leaves created by the grounds crew in preparation for removal = obstruction.  That debate is fodder for another post.  For the moment, it's sufficient to note that the distinction is not inconsequential and navigating obstructions differs substantially from navigating loose impediments.

If it's a natural object and it's interfering with my shot and I can move it without moving my ball, I can clear it away.  Yes?  Not always.   Not when both the loose impediment and the ball lie in or touch the same hazard.  That is, not when the ball and the loose impediment -- the leaf, the stone, the twig, or the insect are interfering with my shot out of a bunker or the muddy, marshy area at the edge of a water hazard that's marked by those red stakes.  And not when the ball is already in motion.  (Clear the stray leaves and other tree detritus before you putt and don't be helpful by reaching down and plucking away a loose impediment or an obstruction -- golf club, flagstick, golf ball -- after another player has rolled her putt.)


What about lost/abandoned balls?  Are they impediments or obstructions?  Can they be removed from the playing area?  Can you take relief from them?

What about an apple core in the bunker?  Is it an impediment or an obstruction?  Aside from hunting down and excoriating the golfer who tossed it there, can it be removed prior to taking your shot?

What can we do about those pesky fire ant hills that pop up from time-to-time?

How many women can help move a large tree branch lying in the rough that's blocking my swing?  Is it really a loose impediment if moving it requires 4 adult women working together?

What happens if I accidentally move my ball with my foot while brushing away some tree debris on the green before I putt?

Don't risk a guess.  If you navigate a loose impediment improperly the penalty is costly.  In match play: loss of the hole.  In stroke play: two strokes.

Check your knowledge of the Rules.

Note:  I'm aware that I've glided over into Rule #24 in this discussion.  That's because I've seem considerable confusion between impediments and obstructions.  I'll take a closer look at Rule #24 and obstructions in a later post.