the preface to

The Rules of Golf in Plain English

Jeffrey S. Kuhn and Bryan A. Garner

This book doesn’t explain the Rules of Golf. Many other books have done that, with varying degrees of success. Instead, it translates them, faithfully, into plain English. It makes them readily accessible to a wide readership—from seasoned players to beginners, not to mention fans of the game. It doesn’t “dumb down” the rules. Not at all. Rather, it employs Albert Einstein’s principle about expressing ideas as simply as possible without oversimplifying them.

a little history of the rules

The Rules of Golf trace their lineage to 1744, when the golfers of Leith, Scotland, drew up 13 rules of play comprising just 338 words (printable in half a page). Some of these original rules are familiar to modern golfers: “If you should lose your ball . . . you are to go back to the spot where you struck last, and drop another ball, and allow your adversary a stroke for the misfortune.” In today’s informal nomenclature, we call this “stroke and distance.”

By 1812, the code posted by the St. Andrews Society of Golfers had grown to seventeen rules, still printable in less than a page, comprising 541 words. The lost-ball rule (like all the others) lost the second-person you, which was replaced by the third-person player. Although the 1812 rule more closely resembles the modern rule, the phrasing still seems quaint: “If a ball is lost, the stroke goes for nothing, the player returns to the spot whence the ball was struck, tees it, and loses a stroke.” And in this 1812 code, the famous phrase loose impediments made its debut: “All loose impediments of whatever kind may be removed upon the putting green.”

The rules evolved. In 1899, the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews (R&A) issued its first official code, which underwent periodic revisions. In 1921, the “provisional ball” was added to speed play. In 1922, golf balls were first required to be uniform in weight and size. In 1939, the maximum number of clubs was set at 14.

Meanwhile, the United States Golf Association (USGA) had taken root in 1894, and gradually it diverged from the R&A on various points, from the size of the golf ball to the out-of-bounds rule to the penalty for an unplayable lie. The first chair of the USGA Committee on Rules suggested that the American adaptations made golf “more adaptable to American links.”

Then, in 1952, the rules became uniform worldwide as the USGA and the R&A joined forces to issue a single rulebook. Among other changes, they abolished the stymie—at the insistence of the Americans—and agreed that the scorecard must be countersigned by the competitor.

Decade by decade, the rulebook grew. By 1970, it was 75 pages comprising about 18,000 words. By 2003, it was 132 pages, in smaller type, comprising nearly 40,000 words. Words and pages have proliferated to deal with the endless variety of issues that the game of golf continually raises. Anyone who doubts the complexity of these issues should take a look at Decisions on the Rules of Golf, the 600-page question-and-answer encyclopedia of golf rulings intended as a companion volume to the Rules of Golf.

Over several generations, many hands the world over have contributed to the Rules of Golf. As with any body of rules that have evolved over time, stylistic inconsistencies have crept in. The style is sometimes wooden, legalistic, and opaque.

Ordinary golfers have learned not to expect much enlightenment when reading through the rules. This is particularly troublesome in a sport that has traditionally prided itself on the history of players’ calling penalties on themselves. How ironic that one of the game’s traditions is hindered by a cumbersome code.

Believing that ordinary golfers should reasonably expect to understand the rules that govern their play, we’ve rewritten the rules to maximize readability.

how this project came about

We’re both golfers, and we’re both lawyers. One of us (Garner) has spent many years training lawyers and judges to write in plain English. He has written many books on the subject, such as Legal Writing in Plain English (2001). Over the past 12 years, he has taught more than 1,500 seminars on the subject. The other (Kuhn) was a participant in one of those seminars. More important, he has devoted himself for over a decade to attending USGA rules seminars and officiating at many USGA championships; he has been at the center of some particularly difficult rulings in major events.

Upon learning of Garner’s experience in revising the Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure and other sets of state and federal rules, Kuhn approached Garner during a break in a legal-drafting seminar in March 1999. He said: “What we should really work on is the Rules of Golf.”

After talking it over, the two of us agreed to embark on the project. We worked through draft after draft—ten in all. We simplified wordings, added headings and subheadings throughout, improved the numbering system, adopted the second-person you (not even knowing, at the time, about the 1744 precedent for this convention), eliminated sexist wordings, added contractions where they seemed natural, made every subsection citable, and rearranged a few provisions to make the rules read more logically. We did all the things that good legislative drafters do to make their work accessible to as many people as possible.

We’ve had some excellent help with this project. Jeff Kuhn’s legal assistant, Andrea Hecht, organized materials, typed the manuscript, and entered corrections countless times—always with great skill. Jamie Conkling, a PGA Tour official, reviewed our early drafts to ensure that we were faithful to the rules. Jeff Hall, Bernie Loehr, and John Van der Borght of the USGA helped us incorporate official 2004, 2008, and 2012 rules changes into our translation. Jeff Newman and Tiger Jackson of LawProse, Inc., expertly proofread the manuscript. Linda J. Halvorson of the University of Chicago Press expedited the book’s approval and publication.

The USGA generously gave its permission for us to publish this translation. We dedicate this book to golfers everywhere. It’s for the good of the game.

Bryan A. Garner
Jeffrey S. Kuhn

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