Know the Rules: Your Questions

We’re about halfway through this series of posts, so it’s time to take a break and do something different. There’s a rules quiz lined up for next week, and the week after that we’ll resume the lessons. Believe me, I’m learning a lot just by writing these posts, so I can’t wait to get moving.

Today I want to do something pretty simple. Enter a comment below to describe a situation on the course that was out of the ordinary and how you used the rules to resolve it. Could be anything. You don’t have to limit it to the rules we’ve talked about so far.

Or, if you still aren’t sure what you should have done, say that, and I might have an answer, or perhaps a reader who knows more about the rules than I do (I’m no expert, believe me) can comment. Got it? Then fire away.


Balance: Golf’s Unsung Fundamental

I went to my city library last week to do some research for today’s post. I wanted to find out what the golf instruction books had to say about balance. Imagine my surprise when I found out that none of them addressed this rather important fundamental. If balance was mentioned at all, it was in one sentence which read something like, “Balance is the key to playing good golf.” And that was it. No discussion of why, no advice to how to get balanced, how to stay balanced, nothing.

Fortunately, I do have one book at home, Byron Nelson’s Shape Your Swing the Modern Way, that does have several pages on balance. I’ll pass on his thoughts and add a few of my own.

The reason to stay balanced should be fairly obvious. Hitting the ball cleanly requires the clubhead to be returned to the ball centered and square on the exact spot it was at address. When you lose balance sometime before contact, it will be difficult to find the ball again with the precision required. Even if you lose balance after contact, that’s only a sign that you lost balance earlier and were able to hang on for a bit. Contact still suffers.

One spring morning I showed up at the course for a 9:30 a.m. tee time to find the first tee full of players. There had been a frost delay, so about eight foursomes ahead of us had yet to tee off. I hung around to watch everyone swing. This is what stood out. A clear majority of the players ended their swing with their weight firmly on their right foot, if not falling backward in that direction. You can imagine what the resultant shots looked like.

In 2003, when Suzy Whaley was getting ready for being the first woman to play in an PGA event since Babe Zaharias, or I should say the first woman who earned her way in, she spent a lot of time working on her balance. She knew that a clean hit depended on balance, and the difference between a clean hit and one that is just a bit off would tell in competition.

Good enough for her, good enough for you. These are Nelson’s thought on how to achieve balance and how to keep it throughout the swing.

Start with a balanced position at address with the weight evenly distributed between each foot and also from the toes through the heels. Having more weight in one place forces you to make a counter-movement at some point during the swing. It is easy to overcompensate and lose the balance you were trying to keep.

During the backswing, weight shifts to your right foot, but to the inside. During the downswing, weight shifts to the left foot. The key to maintaining your balance when all this is happening is to keep your head still and “swing out from underneath your head.” This does not mean your head must be rigid and immobilized. That will create tension which infects the rest of your body. Just keep your head in the same relative position and swing freely underneath it.

Finally, you must swing smoothly. There can be no jerks away from the ball or lurches into it, or movement an any direction until you’re ready. A smooth and rhythmical swing is best. [This does not mean an easy swing. PGA pros hit swing hard and hit hard, but they are nonetheless
smooth and rhythmical as they do it. You have to find your own limits on this point.]

I use two tests to find out if I’m well balanced. The first one is at address. Can I come up on my toes without having to lean my weight forward first? If so, I am in a balanced, athletic position. It’s difficult to test yourself during the swing, so the second test comes at the finish. Can I lift my right foot off the ground as (not after) the club comes to a stop and hold my balance for a count of ten?

Just for fun, you might try standing on one foot and swinging a golf club. This little exercise will make you keenly aware of what good balance feels like, even when you swing standing on both feet.


A Short Game Framework

The short game features many shots with many swings with many clubs. All the possible combinations leave golfers unsure of what to do when facing any given shot. This uncertainty leads to playing the same shot in different ways with no reason other than “it didn’t work last time, so I’ll try something different this time.” A reliable short game needs a firmer foundation than that.

Let me suggest a short game plan that takes the uncertainty out of your club selection, often the critical factor in hitting a successful short shot. There are two ways you can look at club selection, and I am going to call them the the iron method and the putter method.

The iron method follows the logic that a set of irons contains clubs that have different lofts which enable a player to hit the ball different distances with the same swing. Likewise, if the stroke you use for a particular short shot can be kept the same every time, distance can be controlled by using the loft of different clubs. The iron method eliminates the stroke as a variable.

The putter method is the opposite. It’s based on the notion that you putt with only one putter, regardless of the length of the putt. You control the distance of the shot by varying the length of the stroke, or its firmness, or some combination of the two. Applying this logic to the short game, you would use the same club every time and vary your stroke to hit the ball the required distance. The putter method eliminates the club as a variable.

Dividing the short game into four basic shots, (the greenside chip, the chip from past greenside to twenty-five yards, the short pitch from twenty-five to fifty yards, and the standard pitch from beyond fifty yards), you can hit each one using the iron method or the putter method. It is up to you to decide which approach you want to take, then learn to hit each shot with a particular method and stick with it. Your local PGA pro can help you with this.

You will play better golf if you can reduce the number of decisions you have to make as you play. The less thinking you have to do, the better. Here is one way to simplify the short game along those lines.

Note: If you go to my Recreational Golfer website (below), and sign up for my monthly newsletter, you can receive an extract from my book, Better Recreational Golf, that explains the four basic shots in detail, free.


Know the Rules: Ball at Rest, in Motion

There are certain things you should not do when the golf ball is at rest (Rule 18). There are certain things you should not do when the golf ball is in motion (Rule 19).

When the ball is at rest, it can be moved without making a stroke at it. You might do this when you’re removing some debris (loose impediments), if you lift it when not permitted, or if it moves after you have addressed it. In those cases, you must replace the ball (put it back where it was) and take a penalty of one stroke. Except (there are always exceptions):

• In searching for a ball covered by sand, in the replacement of loose impediments moved in a hazard while finding or identifying a ball, in probing for a ball lying in water in a water hazard or in searching for a ball in an obstruction or an abnormal ground condition,
• In repairing a hole plug or ball mark,
• In measuring,
• In lifting a ball under a Rule,
• In placing or replacing a ball under a Rule,
• In removing a loose impediment on the putting green,
• In removing movable obstructions.

In these cases, merely replace the ball. There is no penalty.

If a ball in play and at rest is moved by another ball in motion after a stroke, the moved ball must be replaced.

If an outside agency, such as the wind, gravity, or an animal moves the ball, it must be played where it comes to rest without penalty. One course I play on has a problem with foxes running into the fairway and stealing golf balls. Drop another ball as near as you can to where the original ball was and play on without penalty.

When a ball in motion struck by you is stopped or deflected by you or your equipment (and to be complete, your partner or your caddy) take a one-stroke penalty and play the ball as it lies.

When a ball in motion struck by you is stopped or deflected by another ball at rest, play your ball as it lies without penalty, unless both balls were on the putting green. In that case you must proceed as before, but take a two-stroke penalty.

These two items are in Rule 19

In addition, a ball struck on the putting green may not hit the flagstick, whether attended or unattended, or the person attending the flagstick. If so, take a two-stroke penalty and play the ball as it lies (Rule 17-3)

My new book, The Golfing Self, is now available at It will change everything about the way you play.

Committing to Your Golf Shot

Every good golfer will tell you that once you have selected your shot, you have to commit to it for it to come off successfully. You can’t still be deciding or wondering if you’re doing the right thing. People who say that are exactly right, but when we try to put that thought into practice it isn’t that easy. Why not? Perhaps it’s because we don’t understand what commitment really is.

When we go through a conscious process of judging the course and matching what we see with the shots we know we can hit, or want to hit, the result is never something that we can truly believe in. There is always lingering doubt as to whether we can pull the shot off, or whether we have evaluated the situation correctly in the first place. Sometimes that bit of doubt is too small to see, other times it it is so large we can hardly move the club.

There is no way that we can commit to a shot if there is a possibility, no matter how slight, that it is the wrong shot or that we aren’t good enough to hit it. We have to make a change somewhere.

Commitment is not an agreement you make, or a promise or a pledge to do the right thing. Nor does it imply an obligation to do something in a moral or a legal sense, as the word is commonly used. The commitment I am talking about is a feeling which exists in your mind and infuses itself into your body that what you are about to do is correct. You have a deep subconscious knowing that transcends success and failure. The knowing in your mind and the knowing in your body are the same. The only thing left is to perform. See shot, hit shot.

I know you have had that feeling on the course before, and if you would just take a few moments to reflect, you would be able to remember an occasion or two when you felt that way about a shot. I would be willing to say that the shot came off quite nicely, too. The question is, then, how do you get to that state at will? How do you make it more than something you enjoy once or twice a year?

As you stand over the ball, turn off the part of your mind that tries to evaluate the course in front of you based on everything you know from the past. That knowledge is in there and it doesn’t need to be cued. Just calm your mind look. Don’t go looking for something. Let the course come to you. In a few seconds you will clearly “see” that you should “hit this shot over there.”

That’s about as clear as words can describe it, and if you have to be specific yourself about what that meant, you probably couldn’t, but that’s all right. You don’t have to be able to express something in words to know it. In fact, that knowing is probably superior in most cases to what you can articulate.

A year ago I was about 80 yards from the green on a par 5, on the right side of the fairway just about ten feet above the green. The pin was on the back tier. Pitching the ball to that tier would have been risky, because over the green is a severe downhill slope. A pitch to the front of the green would not allow the ball to run to the hole because of the elevation difference.

So I just kept looking. The ground to the left of the green sloped away, too, so I looked right. I kept looking right and because I didn’t see a shot, I kept looking more right. More right and more right, and suddenly it all made sense. I could punch an 8-iron over to the mounds on the right and let the ball roll down them onto the back tier so the ball would approach the pin from dead right. I know how hard to hit the ball and just where to aim the shot. In less time than it takes to say so, I pulled out the 8-iron, lined myself up to what I “saw,” and hit the ball. It rolled exactly as I knew it would, off the mounds to ten feet from the hole.

I would like to end the story be saying that I sank the putt, but I didn’t. Seeing clearly doesn’t guarantee perfection. But the 8-iron I hit I was committed to as I described above. It’s a good way to play golf by using a mental skill I practice with every ball I hit in play and on the range. It’s as much a part of your setup as anything else you do to get ready.


Know the Rules: Loose Impediments

Recall that artificial objects which interfere with play are obstructions. Natural objects that interfere are called loose impediments. Since golf is meant to be played in Nature as we find it, the rules for loose impediments are much different than for obstructions.

Loose impediments include stones, leaves, twigs, branches, and such. Goose poop is a loose impediment, as is any other animal waste matter. (The Rule book more politely calls it dung.) Worm casts are loose impediments. I’m not sure what that is. Maybe it’s because we don’t have them where I live. We do have goose . . ., oh, never mind.

There is a however regarding loose impediments. A big however. A loose impediment cannot be something fixed or growing (a weed), solidly embedded, or adhering to the ball (mud, goose poop). Then it wouldn’t be loose, would it? I played with a guy who hit his ball next to the green and it came to rest a few inches away from a thick-stemmed thistle. The thistle was in the way of his backswing. He proceeded to stomp the thistle and beat it into oblivion with his sand wedge, which he then used to chip on onto the green and sink the putt for his par. Or so he called it.

Loose impediments may be removed without penalty, except if the impediment and the ball are both in the same hazard. When your ball is near a pine cone, you may remove the pine cone, but if they are both in a bunker, the pine cone stays put.

If you cause the ball to move when removing a loose impediment, except when the ball is on the putting green, there is a one-stroke penalty and you must replace the ball. For example, your ball is lying against a twig. If you think the ball might move when you remove the twig, leave the twig alone.

When the ball is in motion, a loose impediment that might influence the movement of the ball may not be removed. Camilo Villegas was disqualified from a tournament in 2011 when he chipped up a hill. The ball rolled back down, and Villegas swatted away a loose divot lying in the hill in the way of the ball. The penalty would be two strokes, but because he signed his scorecard without taking the penalty, he got the DQ.

All this is Rule 23.

Loose impediments can be tricky. Loose sand and soil are loose impediments on the putting green, but nowhere else. Rory McIlroy got caught earlier this year brushing away loose sand that was in the way of his shot, but not on the putting green. Two strokes, courtesy of his playing partner, Luke Donald.

Loose impediments can also be quite funny. Here, from the Decisions, are examples of loose impediments: half-eaten pear (though no pear tree is in sight), banana peel, ant hill, dead land crab, snake (but only a dead one. A live snake is an outside agency.), a fallen tree, but only if it is detached from its stump.

An insect on your ball is a loose impediment and may be removed, but be careful not to move the ball if it does not lie on the putting green. If the ball is in a bunker, the insect may be removed only as long as it (the insect) is not touched.

If you are about to take a drop, you may remove loose impediments before you drop the ball.

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When the Golf Ball Just Can’t Go Right – or Left

There are holes where a miss to either side is playable and all you have to do is put your normal swing on the ball. Wherever it goes is all right with you. There are times, though, when there is one side of the course to where the ball just cannot go to.

For example, I play a course on which the 2nd tee is hard against the right side, which is also out of bounds. You just have to get the ball to the left side of the fairway, and hitting the ball with even the smallest fade is disastrous. Fortunately, taking one side out of the shot with certainty is easy to do.

When the clubhead approaches impact, it is open to the target line, but closing. It is square at impact (hopefully), and continues closing after impact. That is what we will work with to solve both problems.

When the ball can’t go right, we have to make sure that the clubface does not get left open when it hits the ball. The way to do that is to be turning your right palm down as you hit the ball. This accelerates the closing of the clubface, which puts a draw spin on the ball. You might get a hook, but the ball will not go right. Be careful, because turning your right hand down too much, too soon, will smother the shot.

If you have to keep the ball away from the left side of the fairway, you’ll do the opposite thing with your right palm. Delay its turning downward as you bring the clubhead through the ball. That delays the closing of the clubface, which puts a fade spin on the ball. As before, you might get more sidespin than you want, but the ball will not go left.

I would caution you to save these techniques for times when they are absolutely necessary, when there is trouble on one side and playability on the other. They should not be used as the favored way to curve the ball, because it’s hard to be precise with these techniques without a lot of practice. All they’re meant to do is guarantee that the ball will not go in one direction or the other.

Work out these two moves at the range so you have them under control and get manageable sidespin. The guarantee is void if you try one for the first time on the course when you’re under the gun.


2012 U.S. Open Preview

Winner: Webb Simpson by one stroke over Graeme McDowell and Michael Thompson

For the fifth time, the U.S. Open will be played at the Lake Course of the Olympic Club in San Francisco, but it will be a much different course than before. A devastating disease that stuck eight years go killed hundreds of Monterrey pines that lined the fairways. While that opens up the fairways, it might make things harder, not easier, because that will let in the nearby ocean wind.

  Eighth green

You might not know that Olympic was founded as an athletic club, not as a golf club. Olympic trained, well, naturally, Olympic athletes, who won medals in the early part of the 20th century. In that era as well, Olympic fielded its own football team, which played, and occasionally beat, California and Stanford. Golf came into the picture in 1918, with the Lake Course being built in 1924. As much as I enjoy the Open just for what it is, I enjoy it even more when the course is nice to look at. I can’t think of one that is prettier in itself and in the views of its surroundings than this one.

This week’s course is listed at 7,170 yards, quite short for a major championship. Because position is so important off the tee, and the fairways will be hard to hit, drivers will be the club of choice on less than half the time. This is starting to cause some controversy.

Traditionally, the U.S. Open has been the one tournament that requires the winner to play well with every club in the bag. When the driver is removed, when the Open becomes a lay-up tournament, its reputation a golf’s toughest test gets tarnished. The problem is, of course, continuing to play the tournament on yesterday’s Open courses that are just not big enough for today’s game. I would not be surprised if anyone leaves their driver at home when the Open is played at Merion next year.

It’s time to let history go and build new courses which present the challenge of an Open and which fit today’s players. It pains me to say that, too, because I grew up revering these old courses. But it’s time to move on. End of editorial.

The greens at Olympic are small, averaging 4,100 square feet in area. That’s 72 feet in diameter. Once the ball is on, it will be close to the hole. Good putters will have little advantage over good ball-strikers. Getting the ball on the green in regulation will be the challenge.

Olympic hits hard early in the round. Holes 2-5 were labeled “Quake Corner” in the 1966 Open. Holes 1 and 6 have been toughened up, so it will not be unusual for a player to step onto the seventh tee at +2 or +3. Part of the problem these holes present is the reverse camber of the fairway. #2 curves to the right, but the fairway slopes left. Number 4 does the opposite. Playing for the green on the par-3 3rd is risky. Better to play short and have the ball run on.

Number 16 is the longest hole in major championship competition, a 670-yard par-5 that curves left from the very start, all the way to the green. It is a legitimate three-shotter, but will played shorter one or two days for players to take a chance at reaching in two.

Of no real consequence, but unusual, is that players will tee off on #1 and #9 on Thursday and Friday, because of logistical problems in involved in shuttling players to the tenth tee.

Here’s Ken Venturi’s hole-by-hole tour of the course.

The USGA is having its typical fun with the pairings for the first two rounds:
The Roberts: Robert Karlsson, Bob Estes, Robert Rock
The Hyphens: Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano, Sang-Moon Bae, Rafael Cabrera-Bello
The Initials: K. J. Choi, Y. E. Yang, K. T. Kim
The C(h)arls: Carl Pettersson, Charl Schwartzel, Charles Howell III
The Belly Putters: Adam Scott, Keegan Bradley, Webb Simpson
The PGAs: Davis Love III, Padraig Harrington, David Toms
One Major and Disappeared: Stewart Cink, Trevor Immelman, Lucas Glover
Former Champions: Ernie Els, Geoff Ogilvy, Angel Cabrera
How Did These Guys Qualify?: Joe Ogilvie, Stephen Ames, Tim Herron

Who will win? This is a shot-maker’s course. That brings Hunter Mahan to mind. Luke Donald? You might think a course requiring precision down the fairway and deft around the greens would be his cup of tea, but he has yet to step up on a big stage. Matt Kuchar? Has the game, has the mind. Dustin Johnson won yesterday, and he’s familiar with the lead in a major.

Tiger Woods? You have to hit fairways, and Woods is hitting lots of them now, but you also have to play well into and around the greens, which he hasn’t been doing this year. Don’t let his two wins fool you. Woods built up his PGA record by winning frequently on a few courses. This year he won at Bay Hill for the seventh time and at the Memorial for the fifth time. Those are essentially home games for him. So far, playing on the road has been disappointing.

I know that all the pros want to win the Masters, because champions get treated like a god for the rest of their life. I suspect, though, that that if you asked, the one they would be proudest of winning is this one. For me, the golf season leads up to this championship, and the remainder of the season is an afterthought.


Know the Rules: Unplayable Lies

At some point you will hit your ball into a place where you don’t have a shot. Trying to put the club on the ball just isn’t possible or would be a very bad idea. In this case, you can declare an unplayable lie and get relief, but under the penalty of one stroke. The options are pretty simple, and there are three.

You can:
a. hit another shot from the spot where the ball you just hit was played, or
b. take a drop within two club-lengths of where the ball lies, but not nearer to the hole, or
c. take a drop on the line connecting the hole and where the ball lies, extended as far backwards from the where the ball lies as you wish.

Again, all these relief options come with a penalty of one stroke.

If you declare an unplayable lie in a bunker, relief under b. and c. must be taken in the bunker.

You may declare your ball to be unplayable anywhere on the course except when it is in a water hazard.

You may clean your ball before dropping it, or substitute another ball.

The player is the sole judge of whether the ball is unplayable.

That’s about it on unplayable lies. This Rule 28.

I used this rule once to help myself out. I hit the ball off the tee of a par-3 hole to the left of the green on a bank of grass with a deep bunker between the ball and the green. I chunked my second shot into the bunker, against a deep vertical face. Instead of trying to take a stroke or two to get out of the bunker, I declared an unplayable lie, took relief under option a. on the bank of grass (where I hit the shot originally), and chipped in for a bogey.

Let me recommend that if your ball comes to rest against an exposed tree root, that you declare an unplayable lie and take relief. Hitting a tree root with your full swing is a good way to sprain your wrist or worse.

Deep Rules: If a ball is declared unplayable and when dropped rolls into a lie that is also unplayable, the player may invoke the unplayable lie rule again.

It is not necessary to find a ball for it to be declared unplayable. In this case, the player may take relief under option a. Relief under options b. and c. may not be taken unless the ball is found.

The procedures involving the combination of wrong balls and unplayable lies are so involved, I don’t think you want me to explain it. Just avoid the whole affair by putting a mark on your ball and making sure the ball you find is really yours.

My new book, The Golfing Self, is now available at It will change everything about the way you play.

Casting: Golf’s Killer Fault is Easy to Fix

While swing changes should be a matter between yourself and your pro, there is one change I am going to recommend to you. It is very likely one that you need to make. Stop casting.
Casting is releasing your wrist set just after you start the club back down from the top of your backswing. This is too early. If you do that, you’re giving up clubhead speed and accuracy for no reason. By correcting this common error, the difference in the way you hit the ball will be jaw-dropping.

You don’t think you cast? Let’s find out. Swing up to the top of your backswing and look over your right shoulder at the angle made by your left forearm and the club shaft. Set up again, swing the club up and then back down, stopping when your hands get hip high. Look again at the angle your left forearm and the club shaft make. Is it the same angle? If the angle has changed and the forearm and shaft make a straighter line than before, you’re casting. It’s time to get that out of your swing.

To see why, look at the two pictures. In Figure 1, the player still has his full wrist set as his hands enter the impact zone. Notice that the hands are in the same place in both pictures, but when the wrist set is maintained, the clubhead has to go over twice as far, in the same amount of time, to get to the ball. This generates extra clubhead speed with no extra effort.

Figure 1

In Figure 2, the player is casting. As the club enters the impact zone, there isn’t much of his wrist set left. His power was used up long ago and the accuracy of the strike is in question, too.

Figure 2

Casting is one thing that pros don’t do. They retain their wrist set for as long as they can. A better way to put it would be that they don’t let that angle go until the momentum of their swing naturally releases it. That’s what the release is. It’s the speed of the swing building up to the point where the wrists can no longer hold their set. They let go of the angle and the club lashes into the ball.

To learn how to hold on to the set, swing up to the top at your usual speed, and swing back down now very slowly until your hands are hip high. Concentrate on maintaining that angle between your left forearm and the club shaft. Don’t let it change one bit. Slowly swing from there back up to the top again and back down to hip level. Do this over and over so the feeling starts to take hold in your subconscious mind that your wrists don’t move. They just go for the ride. All the while, your hand, wrists, and forearms must remain relaxed so the wrists can release when it is time for them to.

After three tries at this, on the fourth try let your swing go all the way through the ball, letting your wrists release when they swing past hip level. (See also Your Wrists at Impact)

The wrong way to stop casting is to try for a “late hit” and hold onto the angle for dear life for as long as you can. What frequently happens is that the wrist set is held for too long. The clubface is still open as it reaches the ball, resulting in a tremendous slice.

There is no such thing as a late hit. Get that phrase out of your mind. Casting makes you hit early. A relaxed swing with a maintained wrist set delivers the hit on time.

While you’re practicing this, don’t get caught up in what the angle of your wrist set is. Ninety degrees would be nice, and some touring professionals have even a smaller angle. If you can’t get to ninety degrees, that’s OK. Don’t force yourself to go beyond that your flexibility allows you to do. This is a professional move, but it must be based on your physical capabilities.