The history of the stymie and other match-play anomalies

Wouldn’t want to play it every weekend.

Wouldn’t want to watch it every weekend.

But there’s something about match play that is so irresistible, I’m glad there are two weeks a year where we can watch the pros go at it. And I wish I got to play it more often.

Some of my most memorable moments on the golf course were in match play, which brings to mind another topic that came up while I played the other day:

Whatever happened to the stymie?

I looked it up and discovered that the stymie (or “stimy,” as it was spelled by some people back in the day) was part of the original 13 rules created in 1744 by the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers. The “stymie” spelling first appeared in a published dictionary in 1857.

It worked like this: In those days, the only times you could lift your ball between the tee and the hole was if it was within 6 inches of another ball.

That meant that no one marked their ball on the green – something that is standard procedure today. In fact, it’s one of the first things I teach new golfers, and later on I explain to them how to move your mark if it’s in another player’s line or is simply a distraction. Standard etiquette.

But years ago, the stymie was standard strategy in match play. If you putted or chipped first and your ball stopped in your opponent’s line, that was a stymie. You left it there, and they had to find a way around it – usually by taking their niblick and chipping over it. (Can you imagine how today’s course superintendents would feel about THAT?)  

The PGA of America eliminated the stymie for the 1944 PGA Championship, then a match-play event, and in 1952 the USGA and R&A threw it out when they teamed up to produce the first jointly issued Rules of Golf.

But it still was very much alive in the days of Bobby Jones, who said of the stymie, “More than anything else, it points to the value of always being closer to the hole on the shot to the green and after the first putt.”

Watching the championship match of the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play brought to mind several more thoughts about match play, where there’s more gamesmanship than any other aspect of our great game.

Most noticeably, it affects the announcers. Rather than switch from pro to pro, as in a regular stroke-play tournament, the cameras are on two players except for an occasional cut-away to the consolation match.

That meant that they had to keep talking about the same two guys, Billy Horschel and Scottie Scheffler. By the end of the round, I felt as if I knew everything about them and their games except why they still go by Billy and Scottie.

Horschel’s habit of conceding seemingly difficult putts to his opponent also created an interesting exchange among the announcers. I’m with them. Why would you do that when $1.82 million is at stake?

But no matter. It worked for him. He won the match and the tournament.

The final match also was a lesson in how to play a tough golf course with a lot of trouble – and how to play out of it when you get into trouble. When you see every single shot these guys hit, you realize that they aren’t perfect every time. It only seems that way in stroke-play tournaments where they make birdie after birdie.

I couldn’t help but wonder, though, how it would have played out if the stymie was still part of the strategy. But I also realized this: With all this money at stake, the pros would be basket cases if they had to deal with that, too.

Not to mention the course superintendents.

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