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When it comes to golf, some rules are meant to be broken

By Jennifer Mario, Contributor

I'm no rules expert, nor do I carry around a USGA-approved copy of The Rules of Golf in my carry bag, even though they keep appearing in my mailbox every spring, regular as robins. But I've been playing golf for a number of years now, and if there's one thing I've learned during my tenure, it's that those who do claim to be rules experts are no fun.

Golf Rules Partners
Lest you find your supply of golf partners beginning to dwindle, you've got to know which rules are the breakable kind.
Golf Rules Partners

Why? Let me put it this way: Remember the guy who phoned NBC and tattled on Craig Stadler for "building a stance" by putting a towel down on the muddy ground before kneeling on it? Yeah, I really want to hang out with that guy.

Seriously - while he technically may have been correct, he got Stadler DQ'd and cost him $37,000 in prize money. You think chuckle-head lets his golf buddies get away with the occasional mulligan?

I can credit much of my education in golf rules, those that are broken and otherwise, to my husband and his friends, the original weekend warriors. Back when I was first picking up the game, I played with them every chance I got, absorbing everything I could about this new and exciting game, including the rules.

Once, as I hit a ball so deep into the woods that it was surely a sacrifice to the golf gods, I said, "I'm going back to the tee-stroke and distance!" To my surprise, this declaration was met with derisive laughter. "Stroke and distance? What're you thinking? Just drop another one and let's move on!"

It took a while but I finally learned that regardless of what the books say, there are in fact two sets of rules: those to follow and those to ignore. If you're playing a friendly game, and the key word is friendly, you know that when it comes to golf, some rules simply don't apply. Stroke and distance is just one of them.

But you can't just go around breaking rules willy-nilly, or you'll find your supply of golf partners begin to dwindle. That's why it's so important to know which rules are the breakable kind.

The round begins when you hit your drive off the first tee. Not so, my friends. Everyone knows the round begins when you've hit a drive you're satisfied with on the first tee. The only exceptions are tournaments, or perhaps rounds with money on the line. But in a friendly game, breakfast balls are the rule.

The ball farthest from the hole shall be played first. This is one of several rules trumped by Pace of Play. So let me just rewrite it right now. The ball farthest from the hole shall be played first if the player is ready first. Otherwise, the ball owned by the player who is ready first shall be played first. And the corollary is, of course, if your ball is farthest from the hole, then get your ass ready because time's a-wasting and no one wants to be out here more than four hours.

A ball lying past the white stakes is OB. Sure, if it's way past the white stakes. But there are degrees to OB, aren't there? I mean, is it really OB if you'd need Michael Bamberger, two rules officials and a length of string to determine if it's past the white stakes?

Whiffs count as strokes. I've played many a round with many a whiffer, and it's funny—not once has a whiff been counted on the scorecard. Never. Nada. Zip. This might be merely a coincidence. Or it might be a sign that this is a rule universally disregarded by all. Yes, I know that doesn't make breaking this rule a good thing, but in this case, perhaps all that collective wisdom should tell us something.

And the last and perhaps most important rule to break:

No tipping at private clubs. They probably won't accept the cash, but if you're a guest at a private club, and you don't want to be a jerk, you should offer. Always. No exceptions. If you're not sure how much, ask. Not: Do you accept tips? But: What's the standard tip? Whatever they quote you, add a few bucks. If you're a guest at a private club, you just got to play a round for free, so pony up and tip with a smile. Your host, your caddie, and your bag boys will appreciate it.

Every rule has an exception, and even the exceptions have exceptions. While it's true that some rules are clearly designed for a certain amount of bending, if not outright breakage, then the opposite is true as well. Some rules are sacrosanct, and under no circumstances should you take them lightly. The one I'm thinking of is:

Play it as it lies. Unless winter rules are in effect, this one, as draconian as it may be, still holds. No one wants to see their opponent rolling their ball around on the fairway. That would be cheating.

Oh, one caveat: If money's on the line, you'd better get permission before breaking any rules. Else that friendly game could turn not so friendly, real fast.

Jennifer MarioJennifer Mario, Contributor

Jennifer Mario is a regular contributor to the TravelGolf Network and the author of "Michelle Wie: The Making of a Champion" (St. Martin's Griffin, 2006). A graduate of Duke University, she lives in the Triangle area of North Carolina with her family.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • Rules rule

    BJ wrote on: Feb 20, 2008

    The game and the rules are inseparable. If you ain't gonna play by them (including local ones), I got no problem, just call it by some other name, because it ain't golf, to paraphrase Harvey Penick. But, on a more serious note, this is a sad comment on the nature of society today - I'm ok - you're ok, whatever behavior you and I decide is ok, is ok, even if it's really deviant. It's one reason we're in a sad mess, no absolutes - if you don't believe in something, you'll fall for anything. I'm sure, however, that you had your tongue planted firmly in your cheek in writing this, otherwise, I hope no "First-tee'rs" read it, maybe your own child (psst: not really a good lesson for a kid to learn playing a game, let alone life).


  • Rules

    wendy (UK) wrote on: Feb 19, 2008

    Noooooo! No way am I giving my male playing partners a let-out on stroke & distance. I hit the ball short and straight, they hit it long and in the rough. They don't have to go back to the tee in the interest of speeding up play, but it's sure as hell they are are now going to be playing their 4th stroke (rule made up by me as the only one in my group who actually knows the real rules re hazards, unplayable lies, temporary & permanent obstructions, etc). In the extremely rare (now) event of a "whiff" it's not only counted, but also loudly recounted for the next however many holes we deem humiliating each time they address their ball. Competitive, moi? Never!


  • Article on Some Rules Meant to be Broken

    Carolyn Golf Gal wrote on: Feb 19, 2008

    Oh, Jennifer, I couldn't agree more with you regarding rules to "break" for the sake of keeping the pace of play moving along, and having fun. I would add the "given putt". The guys (and I do mean mostly men) almost ALWAYS give themselves the putt that is within a few inches (within the leather, supposedly) of the hole. Yes, of course, they could and would usually miss it and score higher, but they sure don't want to acknowledge that; so they give the close putts to each other and themselves (to speed up play, of course). So, take the free putt and cheerfully run to the next tee.


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