10 Principles for the Perplexed

I get a lot of e-mail messages about golf rules. Some read like this:

Bill, yesterday I popped up my tee shot into a tree. As the ball was coming down, a squirrel caught it in its mouth and ran off into a muddy lateral water hazard, where it dropped the ball. I could still play the ball, but my uncle said I should climb the tree and place it nearest to the point where the squirrel caught my ball, because the squirrel is an outside agency and I’m not responsible for its actions. I don’t like climbing trees, so I walked into the hazard to play my ball, but then I tripped and had to stick my 7-iron in the mud to keep from falling. That’s when my uncle said he was penalizing me a stroke for grounding my club in a hazard. He has to be my least favorite uncle, so I ignored him and instead went back and reteed, invoking the “squirrel do-over” rule. Bill, what do you think?

What do I think?

I think that squirrel should play second base for the Mets. Catching a pop-up without a glove, or a $6 million salary? That’s amazing.

My other thought is that this didn’t really happen, because you’re one of those people who like to bother other people with hypothetical golf rules situations. There’s always some guy sitting at the 19th hole saying, “What if. …”

We have no use for those guys. But I admit that I receive a ton of genuine questions, so I am convinced that people are legitimately confused by golf’s rules, especially beginners.

I am not a rules official, nor do I play one in online videos. I am usually the sap breaking the rules (see our latest video at nytimes.com/sports). But I know a lot of rules officials, and they agree with me that although it is a fun hobby (i.e., obsession) of many golfers to contemplate (i.e., waste time over) the intricacies of the rules, many more are bewildered by them. The excuse usually given is that the rules are too complicated.

But come on, there are basic rules that are not hard to understand. Here are 10 that everyone should know, and they are also the 10 most abused:


 Before you start your round, you must be able to identify the ball you are playing. When two or three people hit into the same patch of woods off the first tee, you’re not supposed to say: “I think I hit a Top-Flite, or a Titleist or a Tour-something. It definitely began with a T.”

This is not a minor thing to know, especially for beginners who spray the ball a bit.


 If you want to carry 16 clubs in your bag because you’re trying out two putters and an extra driver, at least know that you’re violating the rule that permits just 14 clubs.

You probably mean no harm, and there’s room for experimenting, but your playing partners may want to get a little side bet going, and they could have an opinion about your extra baggage.

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