In Defense of 1.1

Why we should always play it as it lies
In Defense of 1.1 Lipping Out 23

You’ve done it. Don’t lie.

I’ve done it. We’ve all done it.

Your ball came to rest in a divot in the fairway or a footprint in the bunker. The rough is normally mowed shorter. That fried egg is just too much to take. You’re invoking “winter rules”…in August. Whatever it is, at some point we’ve all moved our ball when we should have played it as it lay. But for me, no more. 

It’s a breathtakingly simple concept: Don’t move the ball. Rule 1.1 in The Rules of Golf states, “You should normally play the course as you find it and play your ball as it lies.”

The first rule! And yet it’s the one we so often ignore. Why? Have we become so accustomed to the concept of fairness that any deviation is an affront? Are we entitled by greens fees and memberships to think that bad breaks shouldn’t exist? What happened to the rub of the green? What was once sacrosanct has become inconvenient.

There are exceptions, of course: sprinkler heads, drains, casual water (what is formal water?), TIO, GUR and so on. An entire industry of exceptions to Rule 1.1 has sprung up since the first 13 rules of golf were codified in 1744.

I play with a regular weekend crew of diehards. Within our group there’s the “always finds his ball” guy, the “I’m working on something” guy and the “Mind if I move this?” guy. (I’m the “gets mad and slams his club” guy. I’m working on it.)

I’ve come to believe the “Mind if I move this?” guy is missing out on a vital aspect of the game. A portion of the enjoyment derived from golf is the ability to pull off shots from difficult situations. Is there anything more satisfying than snaking a 150-yard cut around a tree to the center of the green, or back-footing a wedge out of the pine straw, through the trees, to 6 feet? If I’m in a divot in the fairway, then it’s an opportunity to pull off a cool recovery. And if I fail to execute the shot, at least I have a built-in excuse.

On the other hand, if I roll my ball out of that divot and then hit a poor shot, what have I accomplished, other than compounding my frustration? It reminds me of a story Golf Digest editor-in-chief Jerry Tarde wrote about Bruce Edwards explaining the difference between caddying for Greg Norman and Tom Watson: “When Greg would get to his ball and find it sitting in the bottom of a divot hole, his head would go down and he’d mutter something about the bad luck he’s always had. Same divot hole, same lie, when Tom would find his ball there, he’d pause, and a smile would slowly cross his face. ‘Bruce,’ he’d say, ‘Wait till you get a load of what I do with this one.’” The challenge is the point.

The beauty of this game lives in its random nature. The entire structure, both literally and figuratively, is dependent on unpredictable outcomes. If I improve my lie, then I’ve circumvented the essence of the experience. Don’t misunderstand: I will still complain vociferously about a crap lie. I will curse the golf gods. I will take Alister MacKenzie’s name in vain. But I won’t move my ball.

Andy Cavender operates a beef-cattle farm outside of Charlottesville, Virginia. He’s been a Broken Tee Society member since 2017.