Some believe it’s pivotal to the way we play golf, others think it’s a double penalty that slows up the game. Is it too brutal for the average hacker? Steve Carroll thinks it worth a debate
It’s probably golf’s stiffest penalty. Lose a ball, or hit one beyond the course boundaries, and not only do you have to add a stroke to your score but you lose the distance too.
The long walk back, for those who’ve failed to hit a provisional ball, is one of the sport’s most humiliating treks.
For most club golfers it’s an absolute scorecard wrecker. We dread the stroke-and-distance rule.
But it hasn’t always been this way. The penalty for a lost ball or a ball out of bounds has taken on many different forms since the first rules of golf were written down in 1744.
It’s been stroke. It’s been distance. It’s been both. And the argument carried on for much longer than many of you might think.
Well into the 20th century, it was still causing consternation for R&A and USGA rules chiefs.
In an R&A report of 1948, the rules committee admitted they were unable to agree on the penalty for a ball out of bounds.
“They were all agreed that the penalty for lost ball, unplayable ball and ball out of bounds should be uniform but they were equally divided as to the nature of this penalty,” the report said.
“Therefore, with the approval of the General Committee, they decided to take a referendum of the members of the club as to whether it should be loss of stroke and distance, as under the present rule, or loss of distance only”.
In 1960, revealed Kenneth Chapman in his book The Rules of the Green, the USGA experimented with reducing the penalty for both a lost ball and out of bounds to distance only.
It was a short-lived change, but a Local Rule, for a ball beyond the boundaries, then permitted a “ball to be dropped within two club-lengths of the place where it last crossed the boundary line, with a penalty of one stroke”.
A stroke only penalty as a Local Rule! It was eventually ditched at the start of 1968, and we’ve had stroke-and-distance in its current form ever since.
But we know that’s not the end of the conversation. Ahead of the 2019 Rules of Golf update, the R&A and USGA previewed a new Local Rule – Alternative to Stroke and Distance.
That caused quite the stir but the principles behind it reflected a pressing issue for many modern golfers: time.
It remains in the rule book now, but how many clubs use it?
Designed to speed up play, and stop a delay in the game when a ball is lost and a provisional isn’t taken, it allows a player to “drop in a large area between the point where the ball is estimated to have come to rest or gone out of bounds and the edge of the fairway of the hole being played that is not nearer the hole”.
You add two penalty strokes if you use the Local Rule, and you can’t benefit if it it’s an unplayable ball or if it’s known or virtually certain to be in a penalty area.
It isn’t allowed in professional or elite amateur tournaments. Rules chiefs instead deemed it appropriate for casual rounds, or for golfers playing their own competitions.
CONGU, though, did not agree – quickly saying the Local Rule could not be used in any “qualifying competitions or supplementary scores”.
Clubs were caught between two stools. Bringing in the Local Rule for casual play, and not competitions, could have caused confusion among members. It was a penalty-fest waiting to happen.
A fairer alternative to stroke and distance?
We’ve heard little of it since. But should we look again at stroke-and-distance and reconsider the penalties applied for our club competitions? I think it’s worth a debate.
Four years ago, I wrote a polemic praising CONGU for putting the breaks on the Local Rule. I argued that keeping the ball in play had to be one of the game’s principal tests. I said pace of play was important but “not at the cost of losing golf’s soul”.
I mainly didn’t like the benefit of being able to find the fairway edge and drop – even with the sanction of a two-shot penalty.
Much of that still applies. I believe keeping the ball within the boundaries of the golf course is a fundamental tenet of golf. For those shots that go out of bounds, stroke-and-distance should still apply.
When I think about a lost ball on the course, though, I sometimes ask myself how that situation is different from a ball in a penalty area?
There, if it’s known or virtually certain to be in that penalty area, I can take relief at a cost of a stroke.
If it was known or virtually certain that your ball was lost within the boundaries of the course, could you not take similar relief?
We do this in friendly games. Whether it’s a ‘bush rule’, or however you play it, no one is walking back to the tee when a scorecard is not on the line. You just drop a ball, accept a penalty, and get on with it.
What if the Local Rule was tweaked, removing the ability to take relief on the edge of the fairway?
What if you dropped at the point where the original ball was estimated to have come to rest on the course?
If that’s in the rough, drop at that point in the rough. If it’s in the trees, well… you get the drift.
Ah, you say, but people would take advantage. Or, more bluntly, they’d cheat. I’m going to write more expansively about this but it does irk me that developments in the game – whether it be rules, or WHS – can being hamstrung by a collective paranoia that a minority of players might look to pull a fast one.
People cheat. They always have and they always will. When you spot them, deal with them.
Stroke-and-distance is a brutal penalty in our club competitions. We have a mechanism – a Local Rule – that with a couple of tweaks could help ease some of our slow play frustrations.
If we’re serious about trying to speed the game up, and outside of the diehards the length of time it takes to play a round is still cited as a barrier to participation in competitions, then is it worth considering?
I talked in much more depth about this in our From the Clubhouse podcast. You can listen to it by clicking the banner below.
Have your say on Steve’s rule change
What do you think? Is the stroke and distance rule fine the way it is, or was the R&A and USGA onto something with that Local Rule? Let me know with a tweet.
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