There are few rules golfers hate more than the stroke and distance penalty incurred for hitting a ball out of bounds. For a shot that was perhaps two feet away from leaving you with a playable next shot, golf assigns you its toughest playing penalty.
Harvey Penick says as much in his Little Red Book under the heading, Strange Penalty:
“The most embarrassing thing you can do in golf is swing your driver on the tee and completely miss the ball.
“For this humiliation, the penalty is one stroke.
“However, if you smash a drive a long way but the ball lands an inch out of bounds, the penalty is stroke and distance–in effect, a two-shot punishment for what was nearly a good drive.”
Golf (with a capital “G”) understands this. Few rules have been tweaked as often.
The problem is a neat one, as Tom Watson explains in his book about the rules of golf. He says if the penalty were distance only, as it was for a brief time, the next stroke from the same spot would be essentially a mulligan. Watson supposes hitting the tee shot on a par 3 out of bounds, teeing up the second shot, knocking it stiff, and tapping in for a par. That bothers him. It bothers me, too.
Where his argument breaks down is when he goes on to say, “…common sense demands that the procedures be the same for balls lost or out of bounds.” No, it doesn’t. We make a distinction between a ball found and lying out of bounds, and a ball that could be out of bounds, but is not found.
In the first case, it is a fact that the ball is out of bounds. The ball would be dropped in-bounds, two club-lengths from the nearest in-bounds point, but not nearer to the hole, with a one-stroke penalty. If that were not possible, or would result in an unplayable lie, the player could choose to hit another ball from the spot where this ball was hit, and take a one-stroke penalty. This was the rule from 1964 to 1968.
I know that second option is stroke and distance, but that is an option that exists in the unplayable lie rule and the water hazard rule. No reason why the OB should not have it as an option, either.
In the second case, where it is not an ascertainable fact that the ball lies out of bounds, the ball would be treated like a lost ball, and that current rule would apply.
In short, if you find your ball, a penalty less severe than stroke and distance should apply. Only if you can’t find your ball, should the stroke and distance penalty apply.
Problem solved. Now all I have to do is get rules officials from the USGA and R&A to start reading my blog, and rescue golf from this strange penalty.