Recent weeks has brought one of the most difficult moments in golf into focus. The foundation of this struggle lives in two parts of the rules of golf. 

Rule 1 says that each player is expected to recognize when there is a breach of the rules and be honest in applying the penalty. The assumption is that each player has taken the time to learn and understand the rules of golf.

Rule 20, specifically Rule 20.1.c. deals with what another player in a stroke play event should do when witnessing a breach of the rules. The underlined sentence is “You should protect other players in the competition.”

So, here you are, it’s the club championship and you just heard two players chatting it up about what club to use on the next hole. 

You know this is a breach of the advice rule. You know that both players are subject to a two-stroke penalty. You also know that as soon as you open your mouth you will become a clubhouse pariah. 

And here is the weird part. These same players would never fail to add the penalty stroke after hitting a ball into the water. These same players would never take a mulligan in a championship. That’s because these are the rules that they know.

The closing paragraph of Rule 20.1 c (2) explains that if the player witnessing the rules infraction fails to report it, she may be subject to disqualification. This is helps explain why our rules savvy player struggled with weighing doing the right thing against doing the popular thing. 

This exact situation happened in Pinehurst during the LPGA Q-Series. Christina Kim saw a player signal to the caddie of the other player a sign about club selection. Totally against the rules. Totally documented in the advice section of the rules. 

As was her responsibility, she reported the infraction to the rules official and the other two players received their two-stroke penalties. 

Ka-boom.

Rising up from the ranks of the defenders of the penalized players: “Why should they be penalized?” “They didn’t do it on purpose.” “They didn’t know they weren’t allowed to do that.” “They do it all the time. I hear players talk about club selection every day.”

Point of fact, they should be penalized because they broke the rule. The rules of golf have no allowance for not knowing the rules. The very first rule of golf is to know the rules.

The defenders posted “Kim caused a player to miss the cut.”  Kim did not cause the problem. Kim did what was expected of her. Kim knew the rules and applied them properly.

Why did social media go crazy? The players who broke the rule had no foundation for defense. The public has no foundation for defense other than nobody likes a tattletale. 

I found this paragraph in an article about elementary school tattletales to weigh the value of a report. “Am I trying to help or do I just want to get someone in trouble? If they saw someone in danger or needing help, that’s helping. If they just wanted to get someone in trouble, that’s tattling.”

First of all, a golf tournament is not elementary school. Second of all, even if the others perceive the penalty as “trouble,” it’s not. Not any more trouble than hitting a ball out of bounds.

Perhaps you heard about Lea Ann Walker. By the time she had finished her second round in a professional tournament, she had racked up 58 penalty strokes. For the better part of two rounds her caddie was improperly assisting with lining up her putts.

She had not taken the time to read through even the summary of the 2019 rules changes. Her professional caddie had not read the summary either. 

Her fellow competitors either didn’t notice or didn’t bother to tell her about this procedure penalty until almost at the end of the second round. To Walker’s credit, she admitted to the rules committee that the caddie had been lining her up on almost every hole. It was a two-stroke penalty for every infraction, ergo 58 strokes.

If you don’t want to take the time to learn all of the rules of golf, fine. Just don’t get mad at the player who does when they provide some tough education in the form of a penalty stroke or two. Confirm the accuracy of the information with the rules committee and then accept the penalty with grace.

In the meantime, when in a stroke play event, keep in mind, not every player knows the rules as well as they might think. If it sounds wrong, calmly say, “You might be right. Let’s check on that at the end of the round.” 

If the situation means you have to play the hole a different way to satisfy the challenge, the easy way out is to say, “You might be right. I’ll play a second ball the way you think it should be played, but if the rules allow I’m going to count the score from my original idea. We’ll see which is right when we get in.”

Applying the rules of golf is not about being nice or mean. They are just the rules. 

Go play … by the rules.

Contact Betsey Mitchell at bets4golf@gmail.com.

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