Got a question about the Rules? Ask the Rules Guy—he won't throw the book at you!
My tee shot came to rest in standing water within a sand trap. (A rainstorm had recently thundered through.) Intending to take a free drop, I used my wedge to fish my ball from the puddle, scraping the wet sand in the process. As I cleaned the sand off my clubface, my friend said I had to take a penalty stroke for touching the sand with my club. Is he right?
—MARK ATTWOOD, CHAPEL HILL, N.C.
Your friend or…frenemy? In this instance, your buddy is a foe of the Rules, which are rarely, if ever, as vindictive as he claims. (I wouldn't invite him on my next fishing trip, that's for sure.) According to Exception 1(a) to Rule 13-4, as long as a player isn't testing the condition of the hazard or improving his lie, there's no penalty for touching the ground to retrieve a ball in order to proceed under a given rule. You could use a club, a rake, a Slinky—whatever you like. Oh, and you're free to clean your orb in this situation. So drop away. You're penalty-free. And your friend is all wet.
Dear Rules Guy:
In a men's-league match, my opponent hit a drive behind a scraggly tree. He rearranged some limbs that were hanging in his line of play before he hit his recovery shot. He said that someone had apparently tied the branches in a knot, and he was returning them to their natural position. He added that the "tied" branches were out of his way, and they in fact impeded his path after he untangled them. Were his actions permitted?
—MICHAEL R. STEELE, FOREST GROVE, ORE.
Typically in this game, you must play the course as you find it. Rule 13-2 concerns improving one's lie, stance or area of intended swing, all of which are penalized by loss of hole in match play or a two-stroke penalty in stroke play. But the key word above is improving. When he untangled those branches, your opponent actually worsened his line of play, whether out of guilt, ignorance, or an admirable adherence to feng shui. Regardless, although a tree then blocked his angle of approach, rules-wise, he was in the clear. (And I'm up for backyard hedge-trimming help, if he's got time to kill.)
My friend dribbled his drive about 10 feet, and his ball came to rest in play. He teed up another ball and said he was taking a one-stroke penalty. "Huh?" I said. He claimed that by declaring his ball unplayable, he can replay any shot, anywhere, at any time—with a one-stroke penalty. I argued that in this case, according to the illegal-substitution rule, he'd be playing the wrong ball and therefore deserved a two-stroke penalty. Who's correct?
—DAVE FROMENT, TEWKSBURY, MASS.
Dave, this may surprise you, what with your friend's Titleist lying right there in plain sight, but Rule 28 makes the player the sole judge of whether or not his ball is unplayable. Your take on the matter, as either a fellow competitor in stroke play or an opponent in match play, is immaterial. If your pal wants to proceed under the stroke-and-distance penalty, he's acting in accordance with the Rules and well within his rights; there's no breach here of Rule 15-2, concerning ball substitution. You have only the right to remain silent—although given the circumstances, a little eye-rolling would be forgiven.
GOT A RULES QUESTION?
Of course you do! Whatever it may be, send yours to firstname.lastname@example.org and the question may be answered in an upcoming issue of GOLF. Until then, play by the Rules!