They are, of course, powerful within the common meaning. The rules are the rules and after all of these years, they pretty much cover anything that might happen on a golf course. They award victories if you are on the right side of a decision and they deny victories if you’re on the wrong side.
As much as anything, they are intended to objectively clarify what a player’s rights are or what his penalties are. If you know and understand the rules, you can take advantage of their foresight and if you don’t know them, you can fumble your way into cascading penalties and even disqualification. Sometimes that can happen in complete ignorance.
This year, Padraig Harrington replaced his ball on the green in preparation for putting. Unbeknownst to him, he inadvertently nudged the ball forward as he removed his coin. He didn’t discover it until a viewer called it in and he was disqualified.
A couple of years ago, Tiger Woods was playing in Phoenix and his ball ended up behind a small boulder. The rules at the time allowed you to move “loose impediments” as long as they were not imbedded in the ground. So a bunch of men came out of the gallery, struggled to move the boulder out of the way and Tiger played on. They’ve since changed the rule to conform to its original spirit.
A lot of transgressions are as unconscious as Harrington’s. I once asked a player to mark his greenside ball because it was in the line of my chip shot. He is permitted to do that but he can’t clean the ball. In similar circumstances, I have seen a player mark the ball, daintily pick it up with just two fingers and then immediately place it on the ground nearby to insure that it was clear that he hadn’t cleaned it. This day, as I was taking a last look at my shot, the player who had marked his ball was standing aside absentmindedly rolling the ball over and over in the palm of this hand. I didn’t tell him until after I hit my shot because I didn’t want the subsequent drama to interfere with my concentration.
Michelle Wie once hit her ball into a creek near the green. Fortunately, the ball was sitting on the side of the bank and she was able to play a shot. Unfortunately, the ball didn’t come out of the hazard and in her stylish, completely relaxed followthrough, she allowed her club to come to rest on the ground in the hazard. But she didn’t realize it until another viewer called in. You can only do that if you’re using the club to keep your balance, an argument she instinctively made before she saw the video replay.
And, of course, there are some people who deliberately cheat. I read a recent blog post somewhere about a Tour player whose ball famously ends up an inch and a half closer to the hole when he replaces it. I assumed he was doing what I once saw an amateur player doing; placing the ball marker in front of the ball when marking it and then placing the ball in front of the marker when replacing it. Why the Tour players don’t call him on it is somewhat of a mystery…which led me to believe that it might have been a somewhat apocryphal story.
And then there is the sad but inspiring story by Jim McCabe writing in Golfweek that I came across today. “An act of contrition for a troubled golfer,” makes the case that some players who cheat are affected so deeply by it that in the end, they have to unburden themselves because of their reverence for the game. True golfers understand that the rules bring conformity and shape to the game, that they introduce the principles of fidelity and honor to the field of play, and ultimately to life. They know that they will be tested in certain situations and that unless they have already chosen integrity ahead of time, they may be found wanting. And true golfers know in their hearts that should they find themselves stained in that way, they ultimately must rectify it somehow. Be sure to read McCabe’s story.