Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Embedded Ball, "Preferred Lies" and Really Wet Conditions

                Finally, northern California is back to normal. So much so that it is receiving an abnormal amount of rain in a short span of time.  The conditions for golf courses, not surprisingly, are less than ideal.  So I’ve received a lot of questions regarding various options and Local Rules that can be used to help players get through the muddy, mucky conditions.  This can be incredibly challenging when there are misunderstandings as to how various Local Rules can be used, and this weekend at the Peg Barnard we had to come up with a unique solution to best serve the players while still staying firmly within the bounds of the Rules of Golf.

                Before speaking to my experience this week, it should first be explained what Rules and Local Rules are available for players in these conditions.  The first two are better known and are part of the Rules of Golf:
1.       Rule 25-2 – Relief without penalty for a ball embedded in its own pitch-mark.  Generally the Local Rule in Appendix I is in effect to extend relief to anywhere through the green, except when embedded in sand in a non-closely-mown area.
2.       Rule 25-1 – Relief without penalty for interference by an abnormal ground condition. I think where many golfers are confused is that an abnormal ground condition is a specific term under the Rules that refers to ground under repair, casual water or a hole, cast or runway made by a burrowing animal, reptile or bird. The fact that the mushy earth is abnormal to the usual conditions of the course does not, of itself, constitute an abnormal ground condition under the Rules of Golf.

When conditions warrant, there are two Local Rules that are designed to alleviate problems affiliated with extremely wet, poor conditions that are detrimental to the proper playing of the game.  What is often confusing, is that there are limitations as to how far the Rules can be extended:

  1.    “Preferred Lies” also known as “Winter Rules” or Lift, Clean and Place – Appendix I gives the Committee the authority to permit players to lift, clean and place their ball within a specified distance of the original spot. This should only be used when fairway conditions are unsatisfactory.  The catch to this Local Rule is that it is only permissible to put it in effect in closely-mown areas through the green or a MORE restricted area. The Committee does not have the authority under the Rules to extend this Local Rule to anywhere through the green. In other words, this Rule is designed to be used for fairways or fringes, not in the rough.
      Many are confused about this because there are examples of Committees who have over-stepped the authority given by the Rules and made the decision to play “preferred lies” anywhere through the green, notably on the PGA Tour last year (see my FarbTalk article here). “The Committee is always right, even when they’re wrong,” however, there is a difference between having the authority to do something under the Rules and the Committee being permitted to make its own decisions.
      So when conditions throughout the course are so mucky that permitting a player to clean their ball should be granted anywhere through the green, there is a Local Rule that is permissible to use:
  2.    Cleaning Ball: Lift, clean and Replace – The Local Rule in Appendix I immediately following “preferred lies” permits players to lift, clean and replace the ball in the same spot from which it was lifted. This Rule can be restricted if desired, but the Committee does have the authority to use this Local Rule anywhere through the green.

So this past weekend at Stanford for the Peg Barnard Invitational, a women’s event held this time of year each year, the course was thoroughly saturated.  And while good weather was forecasted (and came true) for the days of play, the damage had already been done.  My initial recommendation was to use Lift, Clean and Replace through the green so that there would be some relief for players in the rough as the balls were picking up tons of mud.  There were some who very much wanted to play “preferred lies” through the green and I had to explain what I explained above: it is not permissible under the Rules to extend lift, clean and place to anywhere through the green. I even confirmed that this was the official stance again to be certain. My argument was a bit hampered by examples and rumors of prominent events using the illegal Local Rule, but while the conditions were not great, they were not to the point where exceeding the authority of the Rules was necessary. So, finally, after way too much time as I should have seen this sooner, came the solution:

For the event we played “preferred lies” in closely-mown areas through the green.  So in fairways (which were still distinguishable as all cuts had not been mown for the same amount of time), players could lift, clean and place the ball within a score card length, no nearer the hole. Additionally, we invoked lift, clean and replace anywhere through the green. So players could lift, clean and replace the ball in the same spot if the ball was in the rough. The invocation of both Local Rules granted the players the maximum amount of relief we could provide while still operating under the Rules of Golf. 

Due to the unique solution, a few unexpected and interesting questions arose.

Embedded Ball Relief: Because of the two different local Rule procedures, if the ball was embedded it mattered whether it was in the fairway or the rough.  In the fairway, because a score card length was permitted, a player could simply mark, lift and then place the ball out of the pitch-mark without having to use the drop procedure in Rule 25-2. In the rough, because replacing would mean putting the ball back into the pitch-mark, players had to take the Rule 25-2 relief by dropping and then could still lift, clean and replace if desired.

Casual Water Relief: Again, the two different local Rule procedures could lead to two very different scenarios. In the fairway, if a player had interference from casual water where the ball came to rest, they could either a) take relief and then use lift, clean and place from the new position, or b) lift, clean and place the ball within a score card length to try and avoid interference and if interference still existed they could then take relief from the casual water. In the rough, if the ball came to rest in an area with interference by casual water, the player could lift, clean and replace the ball, then decide to take relief or they could take relief and then lift, clean and replace the ball.

Ball Lost in a Muddy Area: I received a ton of questions, both in this event and from others playing around the area, about balls that plug in the middle of the fairway and cannot be found.  There is some confusion about this and how it relates to Rule 25-1c, Ball Not Found in Abnormal Ground Condition.  Unfortunately, soft, mushy earth is not an abnormal ground condition (see Decision 25/1).  So if a ball plugs in a large area of soft, mushy earth and cannot be found within five minutes, even in the middle of the fairway, the ball is lost and the player must proceed under penalty of stroke and distance. A large area of mud is different from an area that has been declared ground under repair or a large puddle of casual water. If it is known or virtually certain that a ball is in ground under repair or casual water (both abnormal ground conditions under the Rules), but it cannot be found, the player is entitled to relief without penalty.  Now before you go and declare the entire fairway to be ground under repair so players can take this relief, know that the relief is going to be relative to where the ball last crossed the outermost limits of the condition.
      So, in the end there are a lot of options for relief when these kinds of muddy, mucky conditions occur and because the Rules give us specific guidance and specific local Rules to use in these conditions, we, whether as players, course operators or Committees need to ensure we utilize the local Rules properly and in accordance with the authority given by the Rules.

     If you are running an event, playing an event or officiating an event with these kinds of conditions and need to know your options, please remember that your state or regional golf association is there to help you and guide you, or you can always contact the USGA directly. Don’t assume the Committee can just do whatever it wants and still play under the Rules of Golf.