The Rules of Golf and the Study of Talmud

We posted this golf analogy on 6/24/2010. Another season, another visit....

A WSJ article last year about the rules of golf ("Rules Are Made to Be ... Completely Baffling") invoked the Talmud. We agree that the intricate interpretation of the rules of golf can at times remind one of Talmudic analysis,
“The main reason there are so many rules and decisions is because the playground is so large and varied, and almost anything can happen. It’s not like tennis, where the courts are uniform,” said Mr. Fay. Every four years the USGA and its fellow rules-making body, the Royal and Ancient in Great Britain, announce new and amended rules to adapt to new circumstances, and new decisions are rendered constantly, all of which rules scholars study like the Talmud.

Fundamentally, however, the rules can be reduced to a few underlying principles—only two, in the opinion of John Minan, a professor at the University of San Diego School of Law and author of “The Little Green Book of Golf Law.” The first is to play the course as you find it and the second is to play your ball without touching it until you hole out—except, of course, when there are exceptions. The rules define and explain the exceptions. And for situations that aren’t covered in the rules, there’s the all-important equity clause, Rule 1.4: When in doubt, do what’s fair.
The Talmudic analogy is a propos. For golf rules, there are basic principles, a set of detailed laws in a code book and case studies on how the laws are applied.

We love the sport and play as often as we can. When we tracked our handicap, it was around a 16. This season we had our classic Mizuno clubs regripped and they feel like new.

Here is the set of famous golf rule cases that the WSJ article assembled:

Famous Rules Incidents in Golf History

1925 U.S. Open -- Bobby Jones imposed a penalty on himself for a violation no one else saw, eventually leading to a playoff loss in the tournament. He famously deflected commendations for his honesty by replying, “You may as well praise a man for not robbing a bank.”

1958 Masters -- Holding the lead in the final round, Arnold Palmer hit a tee shot that became imbedded near the 12th green. A rules official denied him relief, leading to a double bogey. But Mr. Palmer also played a second ball, scored par with it, and the tournament committee eventually ruled in his favor, giving him the victory. At dispute, according to fellow competitor Ken Venturi, is whether Mr. Palmer properly announced at the time that he was playing a second ball.

1968 Masters -- Roberto De Vicenzo of Argentina signed an incorrect scorecard after a final round 65 that would have put him into a playoff with Bob Goalby. Mr. Goalby was pronounced the victor. “What a stupid I am,” Mr. De Vicenzo said.

1987 San Diego Open -- To protect his pants from getting dirty, Craig Stadler kneeled on a towel when hitting a shot from under a tree. When a television viewer called in the next day to suggest correctly that this illegally constituted “building a stance,” Mr. Stadler was disqualified.

1994 U.S. Open -- In the final round at Oakmont, Ernie Els hit his opening drive into deep rough, but a rules official erroneously allowed him a free drop in a favorable place to avoid television equipment. Mr. Els went on to win the Open in a playoff.

2001 British Open -- Holding the lead on the second hole of the final round, Ian Woosnam hears this from his caddy: “You’re going to go ballistic.” The reason? His bag contained 15 clubs, one more than allowed. Mr. Woosnam removed the club, penalized himself two strokes and bogeyed two of the next three holes. He finished third.

2003 British Open -- Jesper Parnevik and Mark Roe were both disqualified after they failed to swap cards on the first tee of the third round and so recorded each other’s scores on the wrong cards. Mr. Roe was in contention.
2005 LPGA Samsung World Championship -- Michelle Wie was disqualified for taking an improper drop. A sports writer reported the infraction the next day, long after Ms. Wie had turned in an incorrect card.

2007 Honda Classic -- Mark Wilson’s caddy wrongfully told Camilo Villegas’s caddy what club Mr. Wilson had used for a shot in the final round, resulting in a two-stroke penalty. Mr. Wilson went on to win the event anyway, in a playoff.

2008 Zurich Classic of New Orleans -- Stewart Cink was disqualified after failing to give himself a two-stroke penalty. After hitting his ball from one bunker to the next, his caddy raked the sand in the first bunker. He was deemed to be illegally “testing” the condition of the bunkers since Mr. Cink’s ball was still in a bunker. The USGA issued a decision shortly thereafter to allow such an action.

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