Play the Ball as it Lies

By Peter Mumford

If you’ve played golf for more than thirty years, you’ll likely remember a time when a ball in the fairway wasn’t necessarily a guarantee of a good lie.

Agronomy and maintenance standards today are vastly superior to what golfers faced prior to the mid 80’s. Back then mowers didn’t cut the grass nearly as short as they do today, mostly because the grass itself couldn’t survive being scalped on a daily basis. With exponential improvements in grass technology, these days you can get fairways almost as short as greens, resulting in better lies and more roll.

When the grass on fairways was longer, it was pretty common for kids and beginners to “tip” their ball up to expose more of it, thus allowing the club to make a cleaner strike. A lot has changed since those days and frankly, I can’t recall the last time I found myself in a bad lie like that on a fairway, even on some low maintenance tracks. Of course, even if I did, I know I can’t “tip” it up.

Rule 13 – Ball Played As It Lies is designed to cover all manner of lies, and not just in the fairway. The Rule states:

13-1. The ball must be played as it lies, except as otherwise provided in the Rules.

13-2. Improving Lie, Area of Intended Stance or Swing, or Line of Play

 A player must not improve or allow to be improved:

  • the position or lie of his ball,
  • the area of his intended stance or swing,
  • his line of play or a reasonable extension of that line beyond the hole, or
  • the area in which he is to drop or place a ball,

 by any of the following actions:

  • pressing a club on the ground,
  • moving, bending or breaking anything growing or fixed (including immovable obstructions and objects defining out of bounds),
  • creating or eliminating irregularities of surface,
  • removing or pressing down sand, loose soil, replaced divots or other cut turf placed in position, or
  • removing dew, frost or water.

 However, the player incurs no penalty if the action occurs:

  • in grounding the club lightly when addressing the ball,
  • in fairly taking his stance,
  • in making a stroke or the backward movement of his club for a stroke and the stroke is made,
  • in creating or eliminating irregularities of surface within the teeing ground or in removing dew, frost or water from the teeing ground, or
  • on the putting green in removing sand and loose soil or in repairing damage

 PENALTY FOR BREACH OF RULE: Match play – Loss of hole; Stroke play – Two strokes.

Several years ago in a Club Championship final round I was paired with a player who had only a passing interest in the Rules of Golf. On the 4th hole, after hitting his ball into the trees adjacent to the fairway, he proceeded to make practice swings, whacking away at branches and bushes, until he had carved a comfortable path to make a swing. When he emerged from the bush I advised him that he was being assessed a two stroke penalty for improving his lie. He looked at me incredulously like I had just arrived from Mars and refused to accept any penalty or sign his scorecard (or talk to me for the rest of the round). Fortunately, the third member of our group had also witnessed the carnage and backed me up when the Committee reviewed the situation.

Former Japanese superstar Jumbo Ozaki was alleged to be a genius at improving his lie when he found himself in deep grass. He would take multiple practice swings at right angles to his intended path, immediately behind the ball. Once he was through, there was no grass left behind his ball and he was able to make a clean strike on it.

On other occasions he would ground his driver behind the ball to flatten the grass, then switch to an iron to make his shot. Once, at a tournament in Japan, Greg Norman called Ozaki on that very thing but was told by the Japanese PGA, “you can’t accuse Jumbo of cheating in Japan.” Apparently the matter was dropped and Ozaki was never penalized.

One final note about Rule 13. Dew, frost and water can’t be removed. So that long line you scrape through the dew from your ball to the hole is a no-no, Jonesy!

Peter Mumford is the Editor of Fairways Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @FairwaysMag

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