About Penalties in the Game of Golf
By Lew Blakey
In sports games, there are Rules that serve to define each game, consequently differentiating
between games. In football and basketball, the game clock stops if a player with the ball steps
out of bounds but there is no penalty. In golf, there is no game clock to be stopped but there is
a penalty when a ball comes to rest out of bounds. The philosophical underpinnings of golf
penalties in stroke play are the subject of this article.
Golf differs from most sports games since in golf the player himself is often the one to both
observe a breach of the Rules and to assess the penalty for that breach. This responsibility is
particularly important in stroke play, as every player has the right to expect other players to
properly apply the Rules. The Rules of Golf express this responsibility in Rule 6-1, “The player
and his caddie are responsible for knowing the Rules,” and in Rule 6-6 which places the
burden for returning an accurate score card on the player. It has been observed by some, that
golf is unique among sports games in that the players should want to play the game properly;
that is, they do not seek to benefit from improper play. On-course officials tend to be present
only at higher level golf competitions and their primary role is to assist players with applying
the Rules properly rather than “calling” penalties as in other sports games.
In baseball, a runner is only out at first base if the umpire calls him out and in the same fashion
a foul is not committed in basketball unless the referee calls a foul. In golf, the Rules state that
when a player’s ball is in play and the player moves it or causes it to move except as permitted
by a Rule the player incurs a penalty. If this occurs during a competition, then in returning his
score card, the player must include this penalty because the player is responsible for the
correctness of the score recorded for each hole on his score card. In order for the player to
meet his obligations, he must be aware both of the facts of the situation (that his ball in play
was moved) and the Rule (that there is a penalty for such movement). In every stroke play
competition, it is these two issues that are fundamental to a fair competition and the Rules
provide for a proper judgment for the player who proceeds improperly.
There is one further point to be made about the differences between golf and other sports with
respect to penalties. In other sports, sometimes a breach of a Rule is part of the strategy of the
game, such as an intentional foul in basketball to prevent an easy layup or to stop the game
clock. This may be a perfectly acceptable part of the game of basketball. In golf, a breach of
the Rules should never be part of the strategy of the game and the penalties are graded
accordingly to discourage a player from taking an action that is not permitted by the Rules.
Richard Tufts, in his 1960 book The Principles Behind the Rules of Golf suggests dividing
penalties into four categories, those that may result from  ordinary play (striking a ball out of
bounds),  an accidental act of the player (moving a ball in play),  a purposeful act of the
player (improving the lie of the ball), and  failure to correctly follow a required procedure
(dropping the ball in an improper manner). The term penalty should not be thought of as
indicating punishment but rather as an adjustment to a player’s score, which means that the
penalty must not be less than the advantage gained from the Rules violation.
There is no sliding or fractional scale for penalties. The Rules in stroke play call for only three
gradations in penalty,  one stroke,  two strokes and  disqualification.
There are 17 penalties of one stroke, including not following the prescribed procedure for
determining if a ball is unfit for play, marking the position of a ball, or dropping a ball; for taking
relief from a water hazard or deeming a ball unplayable. The advantage gained by the player in
not following a prescribed procedure may be only slight but nonetheless he has proceeded
other than in accordance with the Rules and there must be an adjustment to his score relative
to the player who proceeded properly. In taking relief from a water hazard or deeming a ball
unplayable, the penalty of one stroke is somewhat analogous or equivalent to the stroke that
the player might have made at the ball as it lies to remove it from that situation.
The penalty of two strokes is generally applied when there might be more than a one stroke
advantage or there might be an indefinite but non-serious advantage gained from a violation,
such as improving the line of play, asking for advice from a fellow-competitor or striking a
flagstick with a ball played from the putting green. It’s worth observing that nearly all penalties
of two strokes can be easily avoided by proper knowledge of the Rules.
Disqualification penalties in stroke play are more complex, seldom encountered and fit a broad
spectrum of violations. These penalties are in no way an adjustment for an advantage gained
but rather are the logical final outcome of an act that is contrary to the spirit of the game. For
example, a disqualification penalty is required in situations involving  a serious breach of
etiquette (repeatedly intentionally distracting another player or offending someone), 
interference with the orderly conduct of the competition (not starting on time or not remaining in
an assigned group),  interference with the integrity of the competition (knowing a player has
breached the Rules but does not inform the player or the Committee with the clear intention of
allowing the player to return an incorrect score or returning an incorrect score card with a score
for a hole lower than that actually achieved),  breach of a Rule defining the game (failure to
hole out or use of a non-conforming club),  failure to report to the Committee when required
(in play of a second ball when in doubt of how to proceed or not settling a doubtful point with
the Committee when advised of a violation by a fellow-competitor) and  dishonesty or
cheating (after lifting a ball on a putting green, a player repeatedly replaces the ball nearer the
hole). It should be noted that only the last category covers dishonesty or cheating whereas
several categories, comprising the majority of situations, simply constitute a particular breach
of the Rules of the game, not an act of bad behavior such as fighting in the game of football,
which could result in disqualification of the player.
Some breaches may fit into several of the above categories, depending upon the type of
breach that is involved. For example, in stroke play, a player is required to return a score card
with correct scores for each hole and signed by a marker and the player. A particular type of
scorecard issue – incorrect score because of failure to include a penalty of which the player is
not aware – could be slotted into multiple categories but fundamentally strikes at the integrity
of the competition, thus fits primarily into category 3. Particularly in modern times from clublevel
to the highest level, the whole field has access to scoreboards and the like, and thus
each player thinks he knows where he stands relative to the rest of the field. Failure to include
a penalty in a recorded score for a hole in a returned score card can influence judgments
made by every competitor in the competition while the competition is ongoing even though
these effects, which are real, cannot be isolated. When there is no way to replay so as to erase
all of those judgments and their effects, the player must be disqualified for affecting the
integrity of the entire competition -- whether the player intended to do so or not.
Scorecard violations of the example above have nothing to do with an advantage gained by a
particular player; the penalty adjustment for the advantage gained is the penalty imposed for
the underlying breach, which should be reflected in the proper score for the hole. The
scorecard issue or breach is a separate issue, and goes to the integrity of the competition and
its orderly conduct.
However, as a major exception to the above, the Rules have recently provided that where the
player could not reasonably have known the facts that caused his breach, then in fairness to
the player, he would incur the penalty for this breach but would not be disqualified from the
competition for the score card error. This balances the concerns for integrity of the competition
and fairness to the player involved. This type of score card error is rare.
Over the years, the Rules of Golf have been revised to accommodate the conditions of the
times and in the process some penalties have been altered. For instance, in the first USGA
Rules of Golf in 1897, a lost ball called for a penalty of one stroke in addition to loss of
distance, since the player was required to play again from the spot of the previous stroke. In
1947, this penalty was changed in the Rules to loss of distance only and then in 1952
subsequently revised to the original penalty of one stroke and distance where it remains today.
However, in stroke play, there are two Rules that over time have consistently called for a
disqualification penalty – failure to hole out and returning an incorrect score card where a
score for a hole is recorded lower than actually made with the major exception mentioned in
the previous paragraph.