In Depth: are golf and the rules fair?

PLAYING the game golf we have all experienced moments that involve bad luck, but the Rules are the Rules.

THIS was an interesting question that I was asked:

“I hope you can give some guidance here. The Rules in golf in general can be summarised in my opinion, with “is it fair?” In a situation where there is casual water on a fairway and the player’s ball is in this area quite close to the edge of the fairway, but the rough is severe, does this mean in order to take relief he doesn’t actually get relief. This would make the definition of relief nonsensical in my opinion. I guess he would be better off taking a penalty and drop, keeping the point where he picked up between him and the hole. In my humble opinion this would not be in the spirit of the game and if it was match play I would allow my opponent a drop giving him relief not nearer the hole?”

Although the Rules of Golf are intended to be equitable their correct application may not always result in an outcome that players perceive to be fair.

Of course, this is also true of the game of golf. If you play, or watch, golf on links courses you will know that an excellent drive might glance off a mound in the middle of a fairway and then roll 50 more yards sideways into a pot bunker.

Other examples of golf not being ‘fair’ are: when your ball comes to rest in someone else’s divot, or a footstep left in bunker sand; when you have to take mandatory relief (e.g. from a young, staked tree), dropping your ball at a point where your next stroke will be considerably harder than where it lies next to the tree; or when a well struck ball deflects off course signage and bounces back past you, a true instance of a ‘rub of the green’.

Similarly, one poor shot may end up in a clearing, with a direct line of play to the green, while an arguably better shot comes to rest under the only bush on the course. Some balls ricochet off trees back onto the fairway and others deep into undergrowth.

One player’s ball may come to rest just in bounds and another player’s ball may lie just six inches away from it, but is out of bounds. One ball may rattle through branches and fall to the ground, whilst another may stay lodged in the same tree out of reach

This is the game golf that we have all experienced and it is definitely not fair!

However, the Rules are the Rules.



Read more: JB Holmes avoids disqualification after rules breach

A player whose ball lies in casual water in the circumstances described by the questioner above does have several options. He may play the ball as it lies in the water. He may take relief without penalty by dropping it within one club-length of the nearest point of relief, even though that may be in the deep rough.

He may also deem his ball unplayable and take one of the three options afforded by Rule 28, under penalty of one stroke.

In the context of the Rules, relief does not mean that the player will necessarily get a clear shot from a good lie in the direction that they wish. What it does mean is that the player is permitted to lift and drop their ball in accordance with the Rules to avoid the object, water hazard or abnormal ground condition that was interfering with their lie, stance or area of intended swing.

Players have to accept that this will often result in them having to play from a place that may be more unfavourable than where their ball originally lay.

Of course the Rules can often work in the player’s favour.

If you are a regular follower of my blogs you will have read just as many instances where a player has benefitted from knowing the Rules and used them to their advantage, as instances where they have incurred penalties for not abiding by them.

Returning once again to the original question, the ball could just as easily have been at rest in casual water in the rough where the nearest point of relief was back on the fairway.

Players must accept the bad fortune with the good.

There is one more important observation to make concerning that original question. If you offer an opponent or fellow competitor relief when they are not entitled to it under the Rules, and they accept, knowing that they are not entitled to it, then both sides should be disqualified from the competition for agreeing to waive a Rule of Golf (Rule 1-3).


15 Barry Rhodes & Claret Jug

Barry is the author of ‘999 Updated Questions on the Rules of Golf' (including the January 2016 changes), and '999 More Questions on the Rules of Golf (newly published in January 2016).

He believes that these books provide the easiest and most enjoyable way to absorb and understand the Rules. Barry is an enthusiastic, high handicap golfer, resident in Dublin, Ireland, who developed an interest, then a fascination, and now an obsession with the Rules of Golf.

Barry’s relationship with the Rules began in 2000 with his participation in the inter-club Rules of Golf quiz competitions, organised by the Royal & Ancient for Golf Clubs in Great Britain and Ireland.

This then led to him writing articles, running quizzes, and delivering presentations on the Rules at a variety of golf clubs and corporate functions.

In March 2008, Barry became the first person to achieve a 100% correct mark on the public Advanced Rules of Golf Course examination, run by the PGA in their headquarters at The Belfry, West Midlands, UK, and in April 2015, Barry received a ‘Pass with Distinction’ in the R&A’s Level 3, Tournament Administrators and Referees School examination, the highest certification awarded.


Barry is author of the eBook, ‘999 Updated Questions on the Rules of Golf 2016’. To purchase the eBook, click here.

He writes a weekly web blog, containing interesting content for anyone who wishes to improve their knowledge and understanding of the Rules of Golf. To visit the blog, click here.



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