The game of golf is governed by 34 detailed rules which address every aspect of the game. Yet, any set of rules, no matter how intricate, cannot anticipate every situation that might arise on the course. This is why the rules contain an important backstop: principles of “equity.” Rule 1-4 states: “If any point in dispute is not covered by the Rules, the decision should be made in accordance with equity.”
This principle of equity, or fairness, is reflected in many rules decisions that interpret the rules. Two rulings last Sunday at the Barclays tournament – one involving Gary Woodland and the other involving Matt Kuchar — touched on equitable principles. While the ruling in Woodland’s case clearly was grounded in prior rules decisions, the relief afforded to Kuchar was somewhat puzzling.
Woodland’s tee shot on the 6th hole landed in deep rough. An official who was searching for the ball inadvertently stepped on it, pressing it into the ground. A rules official permitted Woodland to lift and drop the ball at the point where the ball lay.
The general rule in golf (Rule 13-1) is that the player must play the ball as it lies. However, an equitable principle underlying the rules provides that the player is entitled to the lie he had when his ball came to rest. If an outside agency, such as an official or spectator, alters that lie, the player is entitled to restore his original lie. If the original lie can be determined, the player may place his ball in the nearest lie that is most similar and is within one club-length of the spot where the ball came to rest.
In Woodland’s case, however, it was not possible to determine the original lie of the ball before it was stepped on. In that case, Decision 20-3b/5, which involved similar facts, provides that the player must drop the ball as near as possible to where it lay.
Kuchar’s ruling did not appear to fit so cleanly within the rules decisions. As he was assessing his putt on the 8th green, Kuchar noticed damage to the putting surface along his line of putt. Reportedly, the damage was caused by a player in another group who had either slammed down or pressed down the head of his putter — certainly an unusual occurrence on the PGA Tour.
After a lengthy discussion with a rules official, who consulted with the committee, it was determined that Kuchar was entitled to relief. The official proceeded to repair the damage with a divot repair tool. Television commentators reported that the official indicated to Kuchar that relief ordinarily would not be provided in such circumstances, but that the damage to the green was “unusual.”
A rules decision addresses a situation where, after the player’s ball has come to rest on the green, another player or caddie accidentally steps on and damages the player’s line of putt. In that case (similar to the Woodland ruling), principles of equity provide that the player is entitled to the same line of putt he had when his ball came to rest. Accordingly, Decision 16-1a/13 explains that the player may restore his line of putt, or, if that is not possible, treat the area as ground under repair and place the ball at the nearest point of relief.
Kuchar’s situation does not fall within the scope of that rules decision, however, since the damage to the green occurred before his ball came to rest; there was no line of putt to restore to its original condition. Presumably, the committee determined that the unusual damage warranted relief under general principles of equity. One possible analogy is Decision 16-1a/6, which permits a player to repair substantial damage to the hole before he putts. It remains to been seen whether the Kuchar ruling will generate a new rules decision when the Decisions on the Rules of Golf book is updated.
Jack Ross is the editor of Ross’s Rulings.