In this initial column about the rules of golf, I’d like to make some general observations about the rules.  The game of golf is unique in its reliance on players to observe the “spirit of the game” by adhering to the rules and imposing penalties on themselves even when no other competitor (or an official) is aware of a violation.

In most competitive sports, officials are charged with detecting violations of the rules and imposing penalties or calling infractions.  Of course, referees in sports such as football and basketball cannot see everything that occurs on the field or court, and invariably some violations go undetected.  How many times have you watched a football game and heard a commentator remark: “That was a clear hold.  Jones got away with one there.”

In most sports, a violation that escapes the eye of an official is simply one of the breaks of the game.  Players are taught to push the rules to the limit.  Anything goes, as long as you don’t get caught.  Can you imagine an offensive lineman walking up to a referee after a play and saying: “Excuse me sir.  I held number 74 on that play and my team should be assessed a 10-yard penalty.”  Or a tennis player at Wimbledon insisting that his shot was out when the line judge called it in?  These no doubt would be career-limiting moves.

In golf, on the other hand, players (if they take the game seriously) must police themselves.  Most golf competitions are conducted without rules officials.  Even at professional and top-tier amateur events, rarely are there a sufficient number of officials to supervise all of the play.  The introduction to the Rules of Golf explains the “spirit of the game” as follows:

“Golf is played, for the most part, without the supervision of a referee or umpire.  The game relies on the integrity of the individual to show consideration for other players and to abide by the Rules.  All players should conduct themselves in a disciplined manner, demonstrating courtesy and sportsmanship at all times, irrespective of how competitive they may be.  This is the spirit of the game of golf.”

Examples abound of golfers adhering to the spirit of the game by calling penalties on themselves – often at enormous cost.  In 2005, Adam Van Houten, a high school sophomore, shot a two-round total of 144 to win the Ohio Division II golf tournament by six strokes.  However, after signing his scorecard, he realized he had recorded a score for one hole that was one stroke less than he had actually scored.

Although the stroke in question had no bearing on the outcome of the tournament, Van Houten nevertheless reported the error, knowing that having signed an incorrect scorecard he would be disqualified.  His integrity and dedication to the spirit of the game cost him the state title.  However, he later received one of Sports Illustrated magazine’s “Sportsmanship of the Decade” awards.

Adhering to the spirit of the game can also have sizeable financial consequences.  In a sudden-death playoff at the Verizon Heritage tournament last April, Brian Davis pulled his approach shot on the 18th hole of Harbour Town Golf Links into a hazard.  Since his opponent, Jim Furyk, had hit the green, Davis elected to play a difficult shot from the beach, which was strewn with grasses and debris, rather than taking a penalty stroke and dropping out of the hazard.  He played a good shot, leaving himself with a lengthy putt for par.

However, on his backswing, Davis’s clubhead almost imperceptibly grazed a loose reed in the hazard.  He notified an official, and, after some discussion and a review of videotape, was penalized two strokes under Rule 13-4c which prohibits touching a “loose impediment” in a hazard (other than during the “stroke,” which is defined as the forward movement of the club and does not include the backswing).  As a result, Davis lost his opportunity to save par and continue the playoff after Furyk parred the hole.  The difference between first and second place (not to mention the intangible benefits of winning his first PGA Tour event):• roughly $400,000.

Davis received over 100 messages praising his integrity. Furyk commented that it was “not the way I wanted to win.  It’s obviously a tough loss for him and I respect and admire what he did.”  Davis, who told Furyk that he could not have lived with himself had he not reported the violation, later stated:  “I am proud to uphold the values that my parents taught me, and I teach my kids the same stuff.  Be honest in your sport and in your life and simply do your best.  That’s all you can do.”  Tournament Director Slugger White summed it up best:  “This will come back to him in spades, tenfold.”

Another reason that self-enforcement of the rules is integral to the game of golf is that, unlike most other sports where players are in direct, physical competition, the golfer essentially plays against the course itself.  “Old Man Par” is a formidable opponent.  Only by the adherence to a uniform set of rules can one round of golf fairly be compared to another.  (From my experience, the scores of many weekend golfers would be significantly higher if they adhered strictly to the rules; it’s a bit like comparing apples to oranges.)  Moreover, the integrity of the handicap system, which permits golfers of different levels of ability to compete, depends upon rules consistency.

The first recorded rules of golf were issued in 1744 by the Gentlemen Golfers in Edinburgh, Scotland, and consisted of  thirteen “Articles & Laws in Playing at Golf.”  Some of the rules reflect the quite different nature of the game played over the inhospitable links of 18th Century Scotland.  Except on the “fair Green,” stones, bones, or broken clubs could not be removed in playing a shot.  (The modern rules are more liberal.  See Rule 23: “Loose Impediments.”)  Article 10 provided:  “If a Ball be stopped by any person, Horse, Dog, or any thing else, The Ball so stop’d must be play’d where it lyes.”  (This is the precursor of Rule 19-1; horses, dogs, and spectators are now termed “outside agencies.”)

Today, the codification and amendment of the Rules of Golf is the responsibility of the United States Golf Association and the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, Scotland.  There are 34 rules, beginning with Rule 1-1, which states succinctly: “The Game of Golf consists of playing a ball with a club from the teeing ground into the hole by a stroke or successive strokes in accordance with the Rules.”  The rules are prefaced by a set of definitions, which are essential to an understanding of the rules.  (You won’t find “mulligan” or “gimmie.”)

Of course, no matter how•specific the rules might be, any set of rules or laws invariably is subject to interpretation when unique (sometimes unanticipated) situations are confronted.  Accordingly, the rules are supplemented by a volume of rules decisions issued by the USGA and the R&A.  The decisions explain the application of the rules to actual situations that arise in competition, and have the same binding force as the rules themselves.

While the rules of golf at times present complexities, they are based on two fundamental principles.  The first is that you “play the course as you find it.”  The player must accept the conditions he encounters during play.  This principle is embodied in Rule 13-1, which states that “the ball must be played as it lies, except as otherwise provided.”  It might seem unfair to have to play a shot out of a divot or other poor lie in the fairway, but the 18th Century Scotsmen who developed the first rules did not seem preoccupied with fairness.

The second fundamental principle is that “you put your ball in play at the start of the hole, play only your own ball and do not touch it until you lift it from the hole.”  Ah, if the game were only so simple!  Many of the rules address situations where balls have been lost, have come to rest in hazards, or are obstructed by objects or conditions entitling the golfer to relief.

In the future, I’ll address a number of aspects of the rules of golf.  Of course, whether a golfer decides to adhere strictly to the rules is a personal decision.  It is commonplace for golfers to deviate from the rules in casual matches or rounds.  Golf, after all, should be fun!  I have certainly made countless transgressions over the years.  However, it is hoped that this column will assist those who do aspire to adhere to the Spirit of the Game.

Note: Jack Ross, Golf Editor of ValleySportsNow.com, is a rules official with the Massachusetts Golf Association.  He completed an intensive workshop on the rules of golf conducted by the USGA and the PGA. Rules inquiries may be directed to the USGA at www.usga.org.  (You might also wish to consult a PGA professional at your local course.)  The Rules of Golf and the Decisions on the Rules of Golf may be purchased from the USGA at www.usga.org.  This article was originally published in Golf Rules Corner, ValleySportsNow.com (6/10/2010).