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  • Alistair Tait

Golf's basic rule: Play the ball as it lies

I accepted every lie I was given on Woburn’s devilish Duchess course yesterday, and I had some shockers. I obviously didn’t witness every lie my three playing companions had, or every lie the overall winner of yesterday’s swindle pot had. I’m confident they adhered to golf’s most basic tenet.

"Play the ball as it lies."

It doesn’t get any simpler than that.

That’s why I’m struggling with yesterday’s Lexi Thompson ruling from the AIG Women’s Open at Royal Troon. (I’m not alone.) I can’t find the reason for that ruling anywhere in both my copies of the Rules of Golf, the Player’s Edition and the larger, Official Guide to the Rules of Golf.

Both are obviously out of date since each is explicit on what I cannot do to the area of my intended swing.

You can’t get any more explicit than Rule 8.1a, Actions That Are Not Allowed, which reads:

“Except in limited ways allowed in Rules 8.1 b, c and d, a player must not take any of these actions if they improve the conditions affecting the stroke:
"(1) Move, bend or break any:
"Growing or attached natural object….”

Seems fairly clear to me I must accept the lie I was given. I know what you’re saying, what about that opening word “except” and those limited ways?

Rule 8.1c offers me redemption if for some inexplicable brain seizure I brush, say, a tuft of grass beside my ball that’s interfering with my swing. It states:

“There is no penalty if, before making the next stroke, the player eliminates that improvement by restoring the original conditions….”

So if I were to brush away that tuft of grass beside my ball, I wouldn't be penalised if my conscience gets the better of me and I move the grass back to give myself the lie I originally had. Fair enough. The onus is on ME to do the right thing.

I emphasise "ME" because the rule book specifically states "the player” has the responsibility to restore the original conditions. That’s why it’s tough to accept the ruling Thompson received at Troon after exactly the above scenario played out on the par-5, 16th hole in the opening round.

Thompson was cleared of any breach of the rules. In a statement, the R&A said:

“Following a discussion between chief referee David Rickman and the player prior to signing her scorecard, it was determined that, although the player had moved a growing natural object behind her ball, it had returned to its original position. Therefore, the lie of the ball was not improved and there was no breach of Rule 8.1.”

Whether the lie returned exactly to its original conditions is clearly a moot point. What isn’t moot is that Thompson made no effort to restore the original lie. The inference here is that Mother Nature decided to interfere by restoring the original condition, therefore there was no breach.

I can’t find the clause in either of my rule books that says if you improve your lie but the ball returns naturally to its original condition then you’re off the hook. You might struggle to find it, too.

Thompson, who was penalised four shots after replacing her ball incorrectly at the 17th hole during the third round of the 2017 ANA inspiration, is extremely lucky not to have been penalised on this occasion. She would have been penalised under the old Rules of Golf. There was no grey area surrounding old Rule 13-2, which dealt with this situation.

There are plenty of grey areas surrounding our rules now. Maybe too many.

#JustSaying: “I think most of the rules of golf stink.” Chi Chi Rodriguez

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