News From Terre Haute, Indiana

May 24, 2008

On and Off the Course: Scratching the surface of a sticky penalty situation

By Jennifer Myers

I am constantly amazed when I see a high school golfer who doesn’t understand the basic rules of golf, especially regarding a lost ball, ball unplayable, or even out-of-bounds. Anyone who plays in tournaments ought to at least be familiar with those basic rules. High school golfers aren’t the only culprits; they’re just whom I’ve witnessed making the mistakes lately.

How to get relief from an unplayable lie, or from a lost ball, are common occurrences that golfers should already be familiar. There are some rules though, that are important but less well known because they don’t seem to happen often. One such rule is number 13.4a from “The Rules Of Golf,” which states that a player may not test the surface of a hazard prior to playing a shot from it.

“Testing the surface” includes touching the surface with a club or a rake. So if you have to pick up a rake from the far side of a hazard to take it closer to your ball, you cannot rake up your footprints as you walk back to the area near your ball. That would be considered “testing the surface.”

Another example — and one that most of us might not have thought of — is one that caused Stewart Cink to disqualify himself from the Zurich Classic this year. The disqualification was for signing an incorrect scorecard, which was caused by not giving himself a penalty for testing the surface of a hazard. It was odd the way it happened, and not until I called the USGA to verify the situation did I understand why the penalty was rendered. Stewart had hit his tee ball on the 15th hole near but not into a fairway bunker. He stepped into the bunker while sizing up his situation and determining how to hit his next shot. He then stepped out of the bunker, and hit his shot, which landed in a greenside bunker. His caddie then raked the sand to clean up the footprints where Stewart had stepped into the fairway bunker. His doing so, was considered “testing the surface” of the bunker, even though it was a different bunker that his ball had landed in. Therefore he should have been penalized one stroke.

If Stewart’s tee ball had landed in the fairway bunker, and not next to it, he would have had to hit the ball from the bunker, and if he had raked after that there wouldn’t have been a penalty.

A rules decision states that a player will not get any additional information raking than he would have from hitting the ball. Or, if Stewart’s caddie had waited to rake the fairway bunker until after Stewart had hit out of the greenside bunker, there wouldn’t have been a penalty. However, we all realize that is very impractical.

I called the USGA to ask about this ruling, and was told that Stewart happened to get caught in a loophole. The intent of that rule was to keep people from testing hazards before hitting out of them, not to keep them from cleaning up after themselves. Since this happened, the Joint Rules Committee made up of some members of the R & A and of the USGA, has issued an interpretation of the rule in question.

The ruling is posted on the USGA’s web site under the “Rules and Handicapping” page. It points out that even though Rule 13-4a considers smoothing a bunker with a rake as testing the surface, the etiquette section of the Rules of Golf states that “Before leaving a bunker, players should carefully fill up and smooth over all holes and footprints made by them and any nearby made by others.”

The Joint Rules Committee decided that since it is not the intent of Rule 13-4a to prohibit players from practicing proper etiquette when more than one bunker is involved, so if a player’s ball lies in one bunker, it would not be a breach of a rule to smooth another bunker.

I am impressed that the Joint Rules Committee acted so quickly on clearing up this ruling. It’s too bad that Stewart Cink had to pay the penalty for it. I wonder how much that disqualification cost him?

• Quote of the Day — “Golf is an easy game … it’s just hard to play.” – Anonymous