If you’ve been watching the Open Championship at Muirfield, you’ve probably been struck by the stark differences between links golf and the type of golf we play on this side of the Atlantic. We Yanks typically don’t have to deal with sinister, stacked-face pot bunkers, knee-high gorse, and fierce winds that can whip suddenly off the sea and turn an 8-iron shot into a 3-wood shot.
The Rules of Golf are established jointly by the USGA and the R&A, so the same rules apply in Great Britain and the United States. However, some of the unique features of links golf bring certain rules into play more often than in U.S. competition.
Last year in the Open at Royal Lytham, Tiger Woods’ ball was nestled next to the side wall of a pot bunker and he attempted to blast out. The ball ricocheted off the front wall and remained in the bunker. If this can happen to the best player in the world, how can we mere mortals hope to extricate ourselves from such treacherous hazards?
You could declare the ball unplayable, which generally provides three options (at the cost of a penalty stroke): (1) Play from the spot you played your last shot. (2) Drop a ball behind the spot where the ball lay anywhere along an imaginary line demarcated by that point and the hole (this is similar to the water hazard rule). (3) Drop a ball within two club lengths of the spot where the ball lay (no nearer the hole).
However, if your ball is in a bunker, a restriction applies to options (2) and (3). The ball must be dropped in the bunker. Dropping at the rear of the bunker might provide a means of escape. Or, if you’re in a particularly sinister pot bunker and see no realistic way of escaping, option (1) might make sense. You might be better off replaying the shot, even with the penalty stroke. (Provided you don’t hit it back into the bunker.)
The Open often is characterized by fierce winds. In the third round at Muirfield in 2002, the Perfect Links Storm suddenly blew in off the Firth of Forth in the afternoon, wreaking havoc on scorecards. Tiger Woods’ chances for a Grand Slam dematerialized with his 81, his highest score as a professional. He later recalled: “It was blowing so hard out there that it was difficult to stand without your body moving.”
In such conditions, wind can move balls resting on the putting green. Prior to 2012, if the player addressed the ball (took his stance and grounded his club behind the ball) and the ball moved for any reason, the player was deemed to have moved the ball and was penalized one stroke. Rule 18-2b was modified starting in 2012 to provide an exception “if it is known or virtually certain that the player did not cause the ball to move.” (The definition of “addressing the ball” was also changed: all that is required is taking your stance.)
So, if gale force winds move balls on putting greens in the Open, players will have some relief from a penalty. But that won’t help them when they have to hit a driver into a headwind on a 180-yard par-3.
Jack Ross completed an intensive PGA/USGA rules workshop and has officiated at state amateur competitions. Rules inquiries may be addressed to firstname.lastname@example.org.