Observation 1: An Unasked Question
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!