Stroke and Distance: The Stupidest Penalty in Golf

Slow pace of play is the curse of the weekend golfer. Compounding that problem is the stupidest penalty in golf: Stroke and Distance.

Originally published 2010

It’s the weekend, and you’re taking 6 hours to play a course you could cover in 3 hours — walking — if you were by yourself. Of course, simply adding three more people in group makes the round last 4 hours, or a little more. And there will always be some delays, as people take a little longer than they should to practice their swing or line up a putt. But the stroke and distance penalty built into the rules virtually guarantees that play will take a lot longer. Eliminating that one penalty would have a tremendous effect on the game of golf — speeding it up, making it more fun, and more popular.

How the Penalty Affects the Game

There are several times when stroke and distance comes into play:

  • Out of bounds
  • Lost ball
  • Unplayable lie, where everything within a club length is also unplayable, and going straight back from the hole only puts you deeper into the woods.

In each case, you either know in advance that you might have a problem, or it comes as a surprise. If you think you might have a problem before you leave the tee (or your current location), you can play a provisional ball. That takes a little extra time. But worse, it adds to the swing count your already-aching back will have to endure. And if you’re an average duffer, your swing count is already high.

On the other hand, it may come as a surprise. In that case, in addition to the extra swing and the time needed to prepare for it, you add the time required to retrace your steps to where you took your last swing, and then come back again. And unless your skills have undertaken a mighty improvement during your travels, you may well find yourself right back where you started!

Clearly, those situations take time, increase stress, and take fun out of the game. Before discussing possible solutions, let’s examine them in a bit more detail.

Out of Bounds

Out of bounds stakes are typically at the edge of the course, or where an adjoining fairway presents a hazard to other players. So it makes sense that there is a penalty for going there. But how much of a penalty is really necessary? You’re already out one reasonably expensive ball, most of the time. That’s a significant penalty in itself. And it makes sense to add a stroke to your score, to reward more careful players. Let’s see what happens when you add distance, was well. There are two cases to consider.

You know it’s OB: You watch the ball sail out of bounds, so you tee up another. You’re now playing 3. But there are two problems with that approach:

  1. Your foursome just became a 5-some. It takes you maybe 30 seconds to tee up another ball and play it — longer if you take your time. The group behind you is waiting that much longer.
  2. It’s not safe! Remember that the OB stakes are there to protect people and property. So let’s say you have a major slice, and just put the ball way out of bounds. So what do you do? You play again from the very same location! Does that make sense? Not for safety, it doesn’t. The only alternative would be to throttle down 5 clubs or so, to play a truly “safe” shot — not that anyone ever does. And if you did, you would make the group behind you wait for two extra shots, instead of one.

You think it’s ok, but it turns out it isn’t: You go up to where you expect to find the ball, and discover an OB stake that was out of sight, over a hill. There’s your ball, 12 inches across the line, on the OB side. Drat. What do you do now?

According to the laws of golf, you’re supposed to pick up your ball, take it back to the starting point, and do it all over again. The group behind you is waiting for the additional time it took you to travel to the ball and travel back, and it still isn’t safe!

Lost Ball

Again, there are two cases to consider: You expect it to be lost, or you don’t.

You think it’s probably lost: You watch the ball sail into a thick patch of rough, so you tee up a provisional. That’s an additional 30 seconds. You’re going to be lying three, if you play the provisional. That’s an additional 2 strokes, so you will definitely spend the alotted 5 minutes searching for your ball.

Five minutes! That’s a long time to look for a ball. If two people do that on consecutive shots, your just took 10 minutes longer on that hole, alone — and so will everyone behind you. If your foursome searches for one lost ball on 12 holes, there is an extra hour, right there.

You ought to be able to find it, but it turns out you can’t: Maybe it was a blind tee shot, and you had no idea the rough was there. Or maybe it’s one of courses I hate, where you can put the ball a few feet off the fairway, and never find it. (Sometimes, you’re sure it was in the fairway, and you still can’t find it!) You spend 5 minutes looking for it, then head back to the tee. The group behind you has now waited a good, long time.

The only way to prevent that problem is to play a provisional every time, unless you see the ball land. On a blind hole, don’t play any longer than you can see — even if the hill is 100 yards away. No one is going to do that, of course. It’s just one of the silly implications of the stroke and distance rule.

If nothing else, the stroke and distance rule implies that you should play a provisional anytime you’re don’t see the ball land, and the provisional ball should be short enough that you’re guaranteed to see it land, even if it’s a 100-yard wedge. You’ll take longer on the tee, but at least you won’t have to come back to the tee.

But once again you are adding an “extra player” to your group, and you are adding to your swing count.

Unplayable Lie

This one is almost always unexpected. You hit your ball into trouble, and then manage to find it. The problem is, the rule only gives you one club length to find a spot you can play from. On many courses, that often isn’t enough. (Your option is to go straight back from your position, but when you’re in heavy rough off to the side of the fairway, that generally doesn’t help.)

The Remedy: Change the Rule

We know there has to be some penalty for a lost ball or OB. The question is, how much is enough? There are wonderful examples to show that a one stroke penalty is completely sufficient. Those examples are provided by courses that mark environmental hazards. Two of my favorites in the S.F. Bay area are Callippe and Metroplitan.

Lateral Hazard

When a ball goes into the environmental hazard, you’re not allowed to go into the area to retreive it, much less play it. You drop a club length from where the ball crossed into the hazard, take a stroke, and play on.

Callippe and Metroplitans have holes where environmenally sensitive areas run down both sides of the fairway. So your ball is either in the fairway, in the fringe, or it’s lost forever. If it’s lost, you play it as a lateral hazard — you drop one club length from where it entered the hazard, add a stroke, and get on with the game. The result: You’ve lost a ball, you’ve lost a stroke, and you play on — immediately.

(For an unplayable lie in the fairway or fringe, you would add a stroke and take a club length “from the nearest point of relief”. That’s the kind of relief you get from man-made obstacles, only without the added stroke.)

Those courses are fun to play, because you get into a rhythm. You’re never sitting around waiting for the group ahead of you — at least, not until you get to one of the infernal holes that don’t have environmentally-sensitive hazard areas. When you get there, you wait 5 or 10 minutes while the group ahead of you runs around in search of a ball. Then you make the group behind you wait while your foursome searches for balls — because not only do you lose a stroke if the ball is lost, you lose the distance, as well.

So there we have terrific examples of how a simple rule change can speed up the game and make it more fun. And no one to my knowledge has ever had that feeling that it was somehow “unfair” to take a single stroke penalty instead of stroke and distance, on the environmentally sensitive holes.

Quite simply, “stroke and distance” is a patently stupid penalty. If you have time, sure. Take the time to look for your ball. But if the group behind is waiting, or the group ahead is getting away, it’s nice to have the option: Sacrifce the ball to the gods of golf, and get on with the game!

Tradition? Not!

And for traditionalists, It’s not as though stroke-and-distance was always the rule. Stroke and distance is not some hallowed ideal, enthroned since the very inception of the game. It’s a fairly recent development!

I was just reading To Win and Die in Dixie–a marvelous tale about Douglas Edgar — the man who inspired Bobby Jones’ swing, and who revolutionized the game of golf. The action takes place sometime in the vicinity of 1927. (Humor me. I’m bad with dates. It was sometime in that decade. I think.) As the author writes on page 183:

Out of bounds carried no stroke and distance penalty at the time, only a forced replay from the original spot.

So the rule didn’t even always exist! (For out-of-bounds, at least.) Somewhere, sometime, someone felt the need to add a penalty stroke to the proceedings. But if you’ve followed the arguments so far, what they should have done was add the penalty stroke instead of requiring the ball to be replayed from the original spot.

Golfing friend Keith Shepperson pointed out a site that has a more complete history of the “lost ball” rule: It has undergone many changes and revisions, over the years. In 1920, the change was made to allow the penalty stroke to be remitted by local rule. (That was the wrong change. They should have allowed the distance penalty to be remitted!)


Stroke and distance is a penalty that made sense in a different time — a time when only a handful of people played the game, and you could play an entire round without ever seeing anyone other than the folks in your group. But today, with crowded courses and 6-hour rounds, it is an absurd penalty. A simple stroke penalty is more than sufficient. The rule isn’t sacrosanct, either. There is nothing sacred about it. It should be changed.

See also: Improving Pace of Play

Copyright © 2010-2017, TreeLight PenWorks

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