Seventy years ago, a rule change deprived golf of one of its most interesting and challenging situations: impediments. Find out what we missed and why the obstacle should be returned to its rightful place in the game.
These days, if another player’s ball lies between your ball and the hole on the green, you know what happens next: they will mark and lift the ball to avoid interfering with your line of putting.
But that wasn’t always the case.
Since the 18th century, if another player’s ball lay between your ball and the hole, and the two balls were more than six inches apart, you had to play your ball without picking up the interfering ball. It was called the stigma.
If you found yourself in this situation, it was said that you were “defeated”. Your only options were to hit around the blocking ball, which some players tried to do by fading or drawing their putts, or to pierce it, which was usually done with a drawn stick, although some players amazingly did it with their putter.
If you hit an interfering ball, you had to make your next stroke where the ball came to rest, while the opponent had the choice of making a stroke from the new position or replacing the ball in its previous position. If you hit a blocking ball in a hole, your opponent was considered a hole on the previous shot.
Although, like now, the main goal has always been to hole the ball, believe it or not, in some situations some players deliberately interrupted their opponents to make it harder for them.
While most of us have never witnessed or played an obstacle game, it doesn’t take much imagination to realize that they clearly added a lot of excitement and challenge to the game.
Here you can see Byron Nelson clearing the hurdle in the final round of the 1940 PGA Championship.
In this clip, young Ben Hogan is seen being held back by Mike Turnesa at the 1948 PGA Championship. Hogan tries to interject but fails.
And here’s a modern stim, this time made with a putter.
Interestingly, over the years the word stimie rarely appeared in the Rules of Golf. Technically, the stimie regulation was born implicitly in 1744, when a rule was introduced allowing an interfering ball to be lifted, provided it is in contact with another ball.
A year later, things were loosened up a bit with a fix that allowed an interfering ball to be picked up if both balls were within 6 inches of each other.
“If your balls are found anywhere or within six inches of each other, you are to pick up the first ball until the second is played.”
Laws The Golfing Company Members Should Obey When Golfing – April 22, 1775
Originally, stimie was allowed in all game formats, but in 1830 it was specified that it did not apply to stroke play or four balls, and it became only allowed in match play.
Finally, on a sad day for the game in 1952, the hurdle disappeared when the R&A and USGA rules were unified.
Little information is available on the reasons that led to the disappearance of the stimia, but apparently it was a controversial decision that lasted for years.
There was one particular player who was totally opposed to the obstacle disappearing. Maybe you’ve heard of him. His name is Bobby Jones.
In his book Golf is my game, published in 1960, 8 years after the abolition of stymie, Jones devotes an entire chapter to lamenting the demise of stymie and advocating its reintroduction into the game.
According to Jones, proponents of eliminating obstacles argued for two reasons.
The first was based on the assumption that each player must be able to play his own game, free from any influence of the opponent.
Jones replies with unquestionable logic: “I’ve never been able to fathom why that would be so relevant when the fight is between men and one-on-one” (in Jones’ time, obstacles were only allowed in matches to play).
The second reason was that the obstacles were unfair because they introduced an undesirable element of luck into the game.
While Jones admits that in some cases the obstacles were due to pure luck, he argues that they actually favored the most talented players because “More than anything else, this demonstrates the value of always being closer to the hole when shot to green and after the first putt.”
Jones states that some of the most exciting experiences he’s ever had in a game have been in difficult situations, and openly condemns their disappearance as a real bug that diminished the interest and excitement of the game.
“I’ve never experienced so much chill and thrill in such a short time…
…Without the stimie capability, the situation on that thirty-fourth green would be completely routine.
-Bobby Jones, referring to a plight he witnessed at the 1936 Amateur Championships
Despite all this, unfortunately, he was never heard.
The game of golf is attractive because it provides a challenging environment that provides players with endless opportunities to achieve small victories.
Bringing back obstacles, even if only in certain game formats, would not only increase the appeal exponentially, but would also be a fantastic way to honor the memory of one of the greatest golfers of all time.
Will the golf authorities listen this time?
About the author:
Germán Lechuga is an enthusiastic, though admittedly not very outstanding, golfer who deeply believes that playing golf is one of the best things that can happen to anyone. After reluctantly ruling out having the talent necessary to advance his career on the PGA Tour, he decided to give the game something in return in the form of writing instead.
Historical golf rules: http://www.ruleshistory.com/
Jones, Robert Tire Jr. and Keeler, O. B. (1960). Golf is my game. Double day.
Tournament photo: public domain image, courtesy of the Library of Congress