Ask the Rules Guy: Boulder-dash, lost and found and hole out

Wednesday July 27th, 2011

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Hey, R.G.: My partner landed his second shot directly behind a large "man-placed" (but real) boulder. He could have moved it and then played his shot, but he decided to just move the ball and take a stroke penalty. Since the boulder is not natural to the environment but a decoratively placed feature, could he have moved the boulder without penalty?
— Ed Joyce, Las Vegas, Nev.

Regardless of whether it got there by way of avalanche or pickup truck, a natural stone of any size can be considered a loose impediment. Decision 23-1/2 allows a player to move a rock of any size that's in front of his ball, with the important caveat that moving the rock does not unduly slow down the pace of play. Another fun fact: If the rock proved too big for him to handle on his own, Decision 23-1/3 says that you (or any caddie, player or spectator) could have lent him a helping hand without penalty. In this case, a rolling stone gathers no strokes.

Dear Infraction Fighter: I hit a ball into a bunker that was completely covered by leaves. When I looked for my ball, I couldn't find it, so I swept the leaves away with my wedge. I eventually found the ball, but my partner said that I had to take a penalty for touching the sand as I moved some of the leaves. Is this true?
— D. Goodman, via e-mail

Your buddy is most likely calling you out for violating Rule 13-4, which prohibits a player from grounding his club in the sand. But what your friend doesn't know is that there is more than sufficient legal precedent for your prodding. Decision 12-1/4 gives permission to a player who pokes the sand, as long as he is clearly "probing" for his ball. This Decision supersedes Rule 13-4, so blow your buddie's complaint away with the leaves. Poke away, and play on without penalty.

Rules Man: I was caddying for a player who told me about a time he was playing a par 3 with a blind tee shot. He hit what he thought was a great shot, but when he got to the green he saw a ball over the back. He chipped on, but when he went to mark he realized it was not his ball after all. That's when he saw his actual ball, which was in the hole! He thought he had a hole-in-one, but his playing partners said he had to take 2 strokes for hitting the wrong ball. He didn't know who was right, so he took the penalty. His story stumped me, too.
— Tim Ziemann, Tampa, Fla.

This question deals with an underrated bit of golf logic: Once your ball hits the bottom of the cup, your hole is over. This is backed up by Decision 1-1/4, which says that once a player completes a hole, he can't violate Rule 15-3 (which covers playing the wrong ball). You are similarly not penalized for taking more than five minutes to find your ball and/or putting another ball in play, only to then find yours in the hole. The next time this situation comes up, you can save your player a couple of strokes — and maybe earn yourself a bigger tip.

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