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The View from the Ref’s Side of the Fairway: An Unasked Question

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Amateur golfers sometimes have the opportunity to interact with Refs during their tournament play, and at times that can be a big help. But whether you participate in formal tournaments or not, knowing what might be going on in a Ref’s mind can give you an edge when playing.

At a recent Public Links Championship, I was assigned to officiate the sudden-death playoff starting on the course’s first hole, a short par-4 with Out of Bounds down the left side. One of the three players who made the playoff pulled his drive, and it ended up about 18 inches from the vine-covered chain-link fence that defined Out of Bounds. The other two players were in relatively good shape, so I moved toward the player who faced this challenge and stood at a respectful distance to observe, and to help if possible.

The hole had a paved cart path that also ran along the left side. It was about two or three feet from the fence where the ball came to rest, and the ball sat awkwardly between the fence and the path. I watched as this right-handed player tried to squeeze himself between the fence and the ball, trying to figure out if he had even a marginal backswing with which to work. Then he turned his club over, moved to the other side of the ball and started to take repeated left-handed practice swings, trying to figure out if he wanted to try to punch his ball toward the green with the back of his iron. (His stance from this side of the ball was necessarily on the paved cart path.)

Here was what was going on in my mind as I watched: “The player isn’t asking me for relief from the boundary fence, which is interfering with his backswing. He seems to know that the Definitions section of the Rules has a clause regarding Out of Bounds that says, ‘Objects defining Out of Bounds such as walls, fences, stakes, and railings are not obstructions and are deemed to be fixed.’ Good deal so far, looks like I won’t have to disappoint him with that knowledge.”

Once he started taking a stance on the paved cart path and making his practice swings, I began to worry. It was obvious to me that this opposite-handed swing he was testing was a reasonable choice given the challenge the player faced, and I know that Decision 24-2b/17 allows free relief from interference from the Immovable Obstruction the cart path represents (even if the interference occurs due to an “abnormal stroke,” as long as the abnormal stroke is “reasonable” given the circumstance).

“I hate this,” I thought. “I wish I could tell him that he has the option of a free drop from his stance on the path, but doing so would essentially be providing him with advice on how to play — that’s not acceptable coming from me. I can intervene to protect him from making a Rules violation if I see that might be about to happen, but there’s nothing illegal about standing on a cart path, so I’m going to have to shut up and hope for the best. I wish he’d ask me about his options, one of them is a free drop. In this particular case given the nearby OB, the free drop would actually have to be on the fairway side of the cart path — that’s where the Nearest Point of Relief is. And once that drop is successfully made for the planned left-handed stroke, he could even legally decide to abandon the left-handed stroke and take his normal right-handed swing. If he was aware of his choices, he could have a completely unencumbered shot at the green!” 

Sadly, the player never asked. He made a decent, but not spectacular left-handed punch, and he ended up losing the playoff on the first hole. It will never hurt you to ask a Ref what your options are — consider doing so next time you’re in a tournament and something awkward is going on. We’re there to help, but depending on the circumstances you might have to ask!

If you’re not in a tournament, try to remember the principle behind Decision 24-2b/17. If a situation reasonably causes you to have to make an abnormal stroke or take an abnormal stance, and doing so creates interference from an Immovable Obstruction, you are entitled to free relief. (A key thought is whether you’d be making this unusual stroke or stance even if the Immovable Obstruction were not present. If you wouldn’t be, then you are not entitled to free relief as the next Decision in the book, 24-2b/18, makes clear.)

Take care, and play well!

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Howard Meditz is a member of the Metropolitan Golf Writers Association and author of the book, How to Love the Rules of Golf, available on Amazon. He holds “The Highest Level of Rating” in knowledge of the Rules of Golf, a designation awarded by the PGA of America and the United States Golf Association. He's a member of the Rules & Competitions Committee and a rules official for New York’s Metropolitan Golf Association; a member of the Executive Committee and a rules official for New York’s Westchester Golf Association; a rules official for the Women’s Metropolitan Golf Association; and holds a seat on the Board of Governors and is Rules Chairman at Connecticut’s busiest golf facility. (He really loves the Rules of Golf.)

12 Comments

12 Comments

  1. Double Mocha Man

    Oct 10, 2017 at 12:07 pm

    I play croquet on a severely sloping front lawn with my son. We have no rules. It is terrific fun!

  2. Brian

    Oct 9, 2017 at 3:59 pm

    This is an excellent example of rules, but I have to admit, it raises questions in my mind (and if you have addressed them previously, I apologize). Can you elaborate on this: “given the nearby OB, the free drop would actually have to be on the fairway side of the cart path — that’s where the Nearest Point of Relief is”? Is it because if he took a drop, then he wouldn’t be able to make an unencumbered swing due to the OB fence? It’s hard to visualize exactly what was going on, but I think I got most of it… Excellent thought provoking article!

    • Howard Meditz

      Oct 9, 2017 at 4:34 pm

      Hi Brian,

      Thanks for the kind words. To answer your question, the reason the Nearest Point of Relief is on the fairway side of the cart path has nothing at all to do with the OB fence. In the definition of Obstructions we see that objects defining Out of Bounds are excluded from being identified as Obstructions, therefore no free relief from the fence is granted (or, for that matter, from any object which is situated Out of Bounds). The reason the player would have to take relief on the fairway side of the cart path is that if he chooses to take relief for his left-handed stance on the path, the Nearest Point of Relief must free him from interference from the path and also be in bounds. Since the OB line runs close to and parallel to the cart path, in this case he’d have to go back 20 or 30 yards before the OB line was far enough from the path to provide relief. Instead, about two or three yards away from his ball on the fairway side, the actual nearest point exists. So the wise player lucks out with the NPR being right where he probably would want it to be. BTW, if there was room to drop near the fence that was nearer than the point of relief on the fairway side of the path, the player choosing relief would have to drop near the fence even if it was just two inches or so from the fence. And his drop might go right up against it, creating a much worse problem with no free relief. Be careful to evaluate things before you pick up your ball for a free drop — you might not like where you get to drop!

  3. MikieFlorida

    Oct 9, 2017 at 6:24 am

    Based on the image depicted and the description of the original position/lie of the ball relative to the OB fence and the cart path – THE NEAREST POINT OF RELIEF can only to the left side of the cart path. To drop on the otherside/rightside would be farther away than the NEAREST POINT OF RELIEF – the rules of golf only afford “ONE” NEAREST POINT OF RELIEF. The point of player electing to take abnormal stance is a non – issue. The options available would be play it as it lies(righty), take an abnormal stance and swing(play backhand/lefty) or take a one stroke penalty under the unplayable lie options of max two club lengths or going back to,the point of where the player last played from with a one shot penalty

    • Howard Meditz

      Oct 9, 2017 at 12:09 pm

      HI Mikie,

      While the picture may not make the situation completely clear, let me point out that the Nearest Point of Relief, per its definition, must be “on the course” (not OB). In this situation, with the OB-indicating chain-link fence so close to the cart path, when taking relief for a left-handed stroke the player taking a normal stance would have to move back way further than the width of the paved cart path before he could drop in bounds and still be free of the path. Therefore, the Nearest Point of Relief is only on the fairway side in this particular situation.

    • mctrees02

      Oct 9, 2017 at 12:16 pm

      In the depicted image, it doesn’t appear to have enough room for a player to drop on the left side of the path and still play a left handed shot without taking a stance on the cart path. Once he elects to take relief from an immovable obstruction (in this case the cart path), his nearest point of relief is the position where “if the ball were so positioned, no interference by the condition from which relief is sought would exist for the stroke the player would have made from the original position if the condition were not there.”

      In other words, he has to find the nearest point where the cart path would not interfere with the abnormal, left handed swing. He then marks that reference point and drops the ball within one club length of it, no closer to the hole.

      After completing that relief drop, if he then chooses to hit right handed and finds that the cart path interferes with the swing or stance, then he can once again take relief from the cart path.

      As mentioned multiple times in the article, this is outlined as 24-2b/17: http://www.usga.org/rules/rules-and-decisions.html#!decision-24,d24-2b-17

  4. SteveK

    Oct 9, 2017 at 1:09 am

    To ask, or not to ask –that is the question:
    Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
    The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
    Or to take arms against a sea of troubles….

  5. Acemandrake

    Oct 8, 2017 at 5:29 pm

    Would it be acceptable for a rules official to ask the player in question if he has any questions???

    • Howard Meditz

      Oct 8, 2017 at 6:28 pm

      Hi Acemandrake,

      Of course, a serious obligation of every Ref is to be even-handed. In my opinion, the propriety of a Ref asking such a question depends on what the circumstances are . . . for instance, is it the Ref’s intention to push the player into asking — or is he instead responding to some form of communication from the player, even an expression, that inspires the Ref to follow up by asking. Still in my (subjective) opinion, the Ref making himself available by approaching the player is already beginning to approach a sort of “Do you have any questions?” move, and anything more feels to me like he’s making a “recommendation to ask” which I think goes over the line. The closest thing I find in the Rules themselves which speaks to this issue is Decision 34-2/3 which requests that Refs make sure even warnings about potential Rules breaches be done uniformly to all players. Taken to an extreme, we wouldn’t want a Ref following around a favored player and interrupting with “Have any questions?” every time the Ref had a different idea of what a player should do next.

      I can’t promise that every Ref you encounter will see this in exactly the same way as I do, but I can say that you can save yourself by being sure to be the one to speak up!

  6. Howard Meditz

    Oct 8, 2017 at 12:55 pm

    Hi Walt,

    Once the player successfully drops free of interference for the originally planned shot, a new world exists. He may play it, or change clubs, stance and direction of play based on the new situation. So he would again have a choice — maybe he likes his new lie and chooses to stand on the path, maybe he hates his new lie and wants to try again and may do so based on his right to choose relief from the Immovable Obstruction once again. Decisions 24-2b/9.5 and 20-2c/0.8 confirm this.

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