Pressbox View: Golf rules need to be complicated, but not silly

Dustin Johnson confers with a rules official on the fifth hole of the final round of the U.S. Open on June 19. The ball moved a couple of millimeters as Johnson lowered his putter behind it, triggering a series of events that the USGA admitted later were not handled well.

Golf rules are a complicated issue.

The very nature of the sport requires that there be a lot of rules ... and that in many situations, the player is the only person in a position to see -- and call -- the violation.

Even in a major professional tournament, it's impossible to have officials or cameras on every player for every shot.

The companion tenet to that is that there is a strong code of ethics in golf for a player to penalize him or her self for any violation.

No matter how little it might have to do with them having an advantage if the infraction were left, and not penalized. For example, was Dustin Johnson's putt on hole 59 of this year's U.S. Open any easier because of the 2 millimeters that it moved?


But golf rules can be way sillier than that.

There's a rule about not hitting a ball while it's still in motion, understandably. There's another one that you cannot wait more than 10 seconds to play a ball that is on the edge of the cup. One time Meg Mallon was playing in an LPGA tournament and had a ball hang on the lip of a hole.

"I thought if the ball was still moving, the 10-second rule didn't apply," Mallon said. She waited and it fell in.

The next day she consulted a rules official. They watched a video tape and determined 19 seconds had elapsed, so there should have been a one-stroke penalty. So she had technically signed an incorrect scorecard that day. So she was disqualified.

No edge allowed, except ...

Many of golf's rules are meant to keep someone from having an edge. You can't ground your club in a bunker before hitting the ball because you could learn something from doing so. Or if your caddie is tending the flagstick and your putt hits it, that's a penalty (you could imagine the caddie using the stick to stop or direct the ball).

But it's a penalty if you just leave the flagstick in and hit it with your putt. And of course it's not if your chip or other off-the-green shot hits it.

Does that make any sense?


And there's an overlooked incident from that final round of the U.S. Open that, to be honest, would have been a big deal if the 2-millimeter-move thing hadn't occurred and Johnson had won by only a stroke or two.

On the 10th hole, a shot by Johnson was in the rough, but a rules official said a TV tower was obstructing Johnson's view of the green. He took the allowed two club lengths -- which allowed him to drop in the 11th fairway -- and then hit the ball DIRECTLY OVER THE TOWER. I guess he wasn't too obstructed by it.

All very legal, I'm sure any player would have done the same and I don't fault Johnson at all. But the difference between hitting an approach shot from U.S. Open rough, or from a fairway, is enormous.

So for Dustin Johnson on that day, the rules of golf taketh, and giveth away.

It made me wonder how many people over the years who were trying to learn to play golf and were already struggling with the learning curve of how to hit all the shots. Then they started to realize there are a lot of complex and sometimes inconsistent rules.

Hit a ball into a red-staked area and you can drop near there... but hit into a white-staked area and you have to go back to the same spot and hit from there, taking a two-shot penalty? Why the difference?

And they said, "Aw, the heck with it then," and put their clubs on craigslist.

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