Rules Column: Pat Campbell

Why do the rules treat paper differently than pine straw?

You and your golfing partner each hit a great shot off the tee. When you find your balls lying side by side you discover that your ball is lying on pine straw and your friend’s ball is lying on a piece of paper on pine straw similar to the situation in the photo.

Your friend picks up his/her ball, removes the paper, removes the pine straw and drops the ball within the one club length relief area (Rule 15.2a).

You have heard that when you drop a ball you can remove loose impediments prior to dropping it, so you assume you can remove loose impediments that are under your ball, after all it’s pretty much the same as your partner’s ball on the paper. You go to pick up your ball and your friend says, “Don’t touch it! That’s a penalty.”

Shaking your head in dismay and confusion you step back and assess the shot. Somehow it doesn’t seem fair that a piece of paper should be treated differently than pine straw, especially because you cleared pine straw away from the area in which you dropped a ball in taking free relief from a cart path on the last hole and your ex-friend did the same just now.

You are right, sometimes the rules seem arbitrary. The rules of golf operate under two broad principles which are “play the course as you find it and the ball as it lies”. So…. The pine straw is an existing natural condition of the course and you need to accept it (or declare your ball unplayable for one penalty stroke and select one of your options). The piece of paper is man-made and, as such, is not an existing natural course condition so your friend gets to remove it.

You are likely asking why can you remove pine straw (or any other loose impediments) before dropping a ball but not if your ball lies on it?

While your ball is in your hand prior to being dropped the rules allow the removal of loose impediments in the relief area because the ball does not yet have a spot on the course.

In the situation you currently face your ball has a spot on the course after coming to rest after a stroke and if that lie includes loose impediments they are now part of the existing condition. Just a reminder…. if a loose impediment lies next to your ball and you move the loose impediment which causes your ball to move you incur the dreaded one stroke penalty, MUST replace the ball, BUT you do not have to replace the loose impediments.

The golf gods giveth and taketh away with the rules of golf.