Tiger vs. the boulder – golf rules – Brief Article

Frank Hannigan

Some insist Tiger should nothavetaken relief because he violated the ‘spirit’ of the rules The Rules of Golf are hard enough to understand without their being muddied with arguments about ethics. In the famous Arizona desert case of Tiger vs. Boulder, prosecutors of young Tiger said it wasn’t good enough that the rules were applied properly. He should not, they insist, have taken relief because, in doing so, he violated the “spirit” of the rules.

The facts, if not the emotions, are straightforward: Woods’ drive on the 13th hole in the final round of the 1999 Phoenix Open put him behind a boulder, close enough so that he could not have a rip at the green on the par-5, 585-yard hole.

Under the rules, any loose impediment may be removed except when both it and the ball lie in the same hazard, assuming they are not fixed or growing, are not solidly embedded and do not adhere to the ball. Loose impediments are defined as natural objects, such as stones, leaves, twigs, branches, worms, etc. They also include dung and even “the like.” (Personally, I have never been able to figure out what “the like” of dung is.)

The 34 Rules of Golf, which take up 88 pages in a pocket-size booklet, are clarified and interpreted by “decisions” — the equivalent of case law in our legal system. The decisions bear the same weight and majesty as the rules proper. That is to say, if you are running a golf tournament and specify you are using The Rules of Golf, you can’t pick and choose. There is an obligation to use the basic rules, such as stroke and distance for a ball out-of-bounds, and the most arcane decisions, e.g., a live snake is an outside agency, a dead snake is a loose impediment (Decision 18/4).

There are three decisions bearing directly on the Woods vs. Boulder case. One says loose impediments may be removed by “any means”; another says stones of ANY SIZE are loose impediments, provided they are not solidly embedded. (The Woods’ boulder was not solidly embedded.) The third (Decision 23-1/3) took this question: “May spectators, caddies, fellow-competitors, etc., assist a player in removing a large loose impediment?” The answer: “Yes.”

PGA Tour field-staff officials, cognizant of those decisions, applied the law crisply. They allowed Tiger’s Terminators, 12 of them, to push the boulder aside. Tiger went for the green, made a birdie 4, but finished three shots behind Rocco Mediate in third.

Immediately there were cries of “unfair” because Tiger, inevitably, has a large gallery, whereas an obscure player, in the same predicament, would have been out of luck.

So what? In big-money golf the glamour figures inevitably enjoy benefits. Jack Nicklaus played the tour 25 years before actually losing a ball (on the 10th hole of the 1986 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills). On the other hand, the most popular players have to put up with more gallery and noise distractions.

As for ethics, all golfers are raised with the cliche, “The rules are there to help you as well as hurt you.” The implication is clearly that one is entitled to use the rules to advantage.

I can recall but one incident analogous to the Woods vs. Boulder case in the annals of big-time golf. Arnold Palmer drove behind a small wooden bridge erected to span a creek at the 1965 PGA Championship in Ligonier, Pa., near Arnold’s hometown of Latrobe. Gallery marshals removed the offending bridge when it interfered with Arnold’s line.

Alas, a wooden bridge is an artificial object —

an “obstruction.” It is not a loose impediment — dung and the like. While any movable obstruction, e.g., a cup or cigarette butt, may be removed, the same is manifestly not true of an immovable obstruction, an artificial object not “readily” movable. Arnold, even though he was then and remains The King, got hit with a two-stroke penalty.

But neither the rules proper nor the decisions should be regarded as immutable. I asked the USGA to dig into its archives to find the genesis of Decision 23-1/3. It derives from a question put to the R&A more than 40 years ago. The question came after an incident in a mixed, alternate-shot, Stableford tournament. The loose impediment was a “felled” tree, which a female player alone could not move. If the question in 1956 had instead involved a 6-foot-2 male, playing for a fortune, his ball stymied by a huge rock — I dare say the answer would have been different.

The USGA has already said it will revisit the matter with its friends in St. Andrews. There is a good chance the decision will be altered. That’s healthy. It’s almost like real life, in which our distinguished elected representatives may dump the Federal Independent Counsel Act next year.

COPYRIGHT 1999 New York Times Company Magazine Group, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group

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