News & Opinion

'Winter rules' often are in season year-round

Known as 'lift, clean and place,' the rule that allows preferred lies is more common – and perhaps more legal – than you might think

Some things just don’t make sense. Why do we drive on parkways and park in driveways? If white isn’t a color, what is it? And if PGA Tour players are the finest golfers in the world, why are there days when they can pick up their ball in the middle of a fairway, regardless of whether it gets a little mud on it?

“It’s in the rulebook,” Jon Brendle says. “Lift, clean and place; it’s in there. Look under models in local rules. Do you really think we’d let them do something that’s not in the rules?”

100th PGA Championship
Don’t touch that ball! Unless, of course, Rule 9 has been waived for the occasion and ‘lift, clean and place’ is being observed.

Shame on me. He’s right, of course, because rules officials are always right, and Brendle served as the law at Tour events for 25 years. The man can tell you some stories, especially since he retired five years ago, and many of them are quite funny. There’s something inherently amusing about one of the nicest guys in golf being paid to break bad on a field full of millionaires very accustomed to getting their own way.

Tour pro: “Do you have any idea how much this is going to cost me?”

Brendle: “Yeah, two strokes.”

Tour pro: “No, I mean how much money.”

Brendle: “I really couldn’t tell you, but it was two strokes for Ben Hogan and two strokes for Byron Nelson, so it’s two strokes for you.”

I would consider myself an 8 or 9 handicap on the rules – certainly not great, definitely not clueless – and had no idea that lift, clean and place is perfectly legal as a conditional act. The USGA doesn’t allow it at its championships, nor does the Masters or British Open, and since the people who run those tournaments are largely responsible for writing and enforcing the Rules of Golf, I just figured “preferred lies” or “winter rules” were an absolute no-no.

Again, shame on me. At the 1992 Memorial, Brendle arrived for work at the usual (ridiculously early) time and hustled into the clubhouse to grab a quick bite. “I’d just sat down with my oatmeal when I feel this presence behind me,” he said. “It’s Mr. Nicklaus. He says, ‘The golf course is in perfect shape. It’s not even raining. Why are we playing lift, clean and place?’

“I say, ‘Of course it’s in perfect shape, Jack. It’s always in perfect shape, but the fairways are saturated, and when someone takes relief from casual water, it could take them four or five minutes to find a dry spot. They’ll be up on the hill somewhere in the rough, and we’ll never finish.’ If you take relief from casual water, it must be complete relief. You play lift, clean and place because we wouldn’t be able to finish otherwise.”

It’s fair to say that LC&P has gotten a lousy rap over the years. Purists call it “lift, clean and cheat,” a clear violation of Rule 9 (“Ball Played as It Lies; Ball at Rest Lifted or Moved”), which requires a golfer to play the ball as it lies. The USGA obviously doesn’t like it because it would go no further than to make it a local provision, which makes sense in that each club (or supervising official) can make a determination as to what is appropriate – and so the bluecoats can play the ball down under any circumstances at the U.S. Open.

On his final hole of the second round in 2001 at Southern Hills, David Duval struck a massive drive that soared over the right treeline and landed with a splat on what was supposed to be a spectator crosswalk. Heavy rain the day before had turned the grounds into a mudpit; Duval was denied relief in what remains the harshest ruling I’ve ever witnessed. For the most part, I consider free drops from weather-afflicted areas to be overdone, but there are plenty of instances in which players are penalized for hitting terrific shots, then handed the same verdict that Duval received that day in Oklahoma.

An adverse decision on relief hardly qualifies as “protecting the field,” if subjectivity assumes a role in the ruling. In that sense, the USGA is absolutely right in its enforcement of a no-flexibility policy. “Hey, at my club, I won’t allow it,” Brendle says of touching a ball before it reaches the green. “We play it down. You got mud on your ball? Too bad. It’s an outdoor game. Let’s play golf. “

This whole preferred-lies thing started bouncing around in my brain during the third round of the 2020 opener at Kapalua. It’s 70 degrees, the sun is in the front row of the skybox … and they’re playing winter rules on fairways wider than Delaware?

I’ll give you winter rules: never wait until the following morning to shovel your driveway, because it probably turned into a hockey rink; and teach your dog how to let himself outside to take a poop in February. You’ve got a 34-man field playing for $6.7 million at a place where people spend 15 grand to escape the bowels of the climate calendar – and we’re wiping a fragment of loose earth off the ball because it rained two days ago?

Ridiculous. With a capital R. Whoever made that decision should have been shipped immediately to upstate New York for a week of outdoor public service.

“You remember who shot the first 59 in Tour history?” Brendle asked me.

“Sure. Al Geiberger.”

“Do you know where?”

“Memphis.”

“Did you know they played ‘lift, clean and place’ that day?”

“You’re kidding me.”

“No, sir. I’m kind of a USGA guy, but I wouldn’t put an asterisk next to it.”

Give me five minutes with that record book, and I’ll show you an asterisk the size of Maui.