Here’s a time when playing by the letter of the law upsets everyone

I like rules. I’m a rules follower.

If the road sign indicates “no left turn,” I don’t turn left. I count my items in the express lane at the grocery store to make sure I don’t have more than 15. I tell the tax preparer to make sure we play by the rules. I sleep better that way.

But because I couldn’t sleep Friday night, I got to witness one of the most incredible golf turnabouts ever, a scene that very much involved the rules. I’d never seen this decide a match, and it got me thinking, once again, about whether golf sometimes takes its rules to too much of an extreme.

I turned on the television just in time to see the replay of the playoff between Erica Shephard and Elizabeth Moon in the semifinals of the U.S. Girls’ Junior. Shepherd’s chip shot checked up short, and she then missed her putt for birdie on the par-5.

Moon had an uphill 4-footer left for birdie – she seemed certain to win. That’s when the unthinkable happened.

Moon jabbed her left-breaking putt and watched it miss on the low side, stopping inches away. Reflexively, and assuming her next putt was conceded, she tapped the ball back to where she was standing and hit the putt again.

One problem: She did it so quickly, Shepherd – who had kept her eyes closed while Moon was putting, thinking she was about to lose – didn’t have a chance to say the next putt was good.

Shepherd’s caddie and coach, University of Indianapolis coach Brent Nicoson, quickly saw what had happened and told the rules officials, who were standing next to the green. They, in turn, huddled and decided that Moon had violated Rule 18-2 (Ball at Rest Moved). The resulting penalty gave Shepherd the victory.

It’s one of those times where golf’s strict rules don’t make anyone happy.

The rules official who had to explain it to Moon seemed absolutely mortified to have to tell her that she had lost.

Shepherd was quick to point out to the rules officials that she would have conceded the 6-inch putt if she’d had the opportunity. She was so upset, she sought out Moon in the locker room to console her. She wanted the match to go on.

And Moon … oh my gosh. She was in a state of shock that she could go so quickly from the thrill of seemingly certain victory to the most gut-wrenching agony of defeat you’ll ever see.

The right thing, by the spirit of the game, would have been to just say the putt would have been conceded and go on to a second playoff hole. No one wanted to end the match that way.

But because Moon did the wrong thing, according to golf’s rules, that made any feelings about the decision moot. The rule is the rule. If Shepherd hadn’t said, “That’s good,” it wasn’t good.

You can be certain of one thing: Moon will never again assume that a putt has been conceded. And any serious golfer who saw it or read about it probably made that mental note, too.

Now if this were a friendly match and not in a tournament, I have no doubt that most people would just say it was good and move on to the next hole. But what would you do if this happened in your club championship and you were the one who hadn’t conceded the putt?

Would you insist on playing by the spirit of the game?

Or would you insist on playing by the rules exactly as they are written?

I’d vote for the former, and here’s why: When I walk off the golf course with anyone, even someone I’ve met for the first time, I want to feel as if we’re friends who share a love for our great game. It’s all part of sleeping better at night (something I obviously need to work on after last night). It’s just not worth it to me to win on a technicality.

But I wouldn’t blame anyone for having the rules-are-rules view. That’s one of my favorite things about golf – the rules.

I realize that I can’t have it both ways. As I’ve often said in these passages, I have a real problem with people who say they play by the rules and then think nothing of breaking them whenever they feel like it.

So maybe I’ll amend it to this: If it’s just a casual, friendly match to see who pays for lunch, you let it slide. If it’s in a big match-play tournament, you go by the letter of the law.

I’m still struggling with it, though. When does strict become too strict? Some rules are made to be broken.


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