Rules to Play By Maximum Stokes

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Editor's note: Ray Herzog, a rules expert from the San Diego Golf Academy in Orlando, Fla., will be presiding over cases presented by you the reader. Please submit your on-course dispute and let Rules Judge Ray settle it.
 
Case presented by Ira P.:
 
After my ball was on the green, I hit a downhill putt that ran off the front of the green. My opponent said because my ball was originally on the green, I was not allowed to replace the flagstick for my next shot which was from off the green. I was not aware that the rules made this distinction for balls being played from off the green. Is this correct? Please advise.
 
Ira,
 
I have to agree with you on this one, I am also unaware of any rule that makes a distinction for shots played from off the green. The only breach for a flagstick being in the hole would be under rule 17-3c. It states, the players ball must not strike the flagstick in the hole, unattended, when the stroke has been made on the putting green. The key words being, 'on the putting green.' As soon as your ball went off the green, there is nothing in the rules that says you cannot put the flagstick back in the hole.
 
If you really want to mess with your opponents head, tell him that before you make a stroke from anywhere on the course, you may have the flagstick attended for you. That will really throw him for a loop.
-- Ray
 
Bonus question from William Port
 
Is there a maximum number of penalty strokes that can be assessed on a shot or a hole? ... Although this exact example has not happened all in one shot/hole, all these things have happened at one time or another. What if they did happen all on one hole?
 
For example, on the first tee you hit your tee shot into the tree line. You think you see your ball under a bush. You can get to a position to hit the ball if you get on your knees. However, it has been raining and the ground is wet so you put down a towel to kneel on. Right there, you have improved your stance and there is a penalty. You press on. You take a mighty swing at the ball and shank it farther into the tree line and past the white out of bounds stake. Now we have an out of bounds shot and another penalty. You go to pick up your ball to go back to the bush and as you look at your ball you see that it is not, indeed, your ball. Oops, another penalty for hitting a wrong ball. On the way back to the bush you notice another ball under another near by bush and are able to identify it as your ball. Rather than try another tricky under the bush shot, you decide to declare it unplayable and take a drop. Another penalty stroke for that decision. You then take your drop but you take it from the wrong place. Yet another penalty. As you are now ready to hit your shot from the wrong spot you decide you need a different club. As you select your club, you notice that you have 15 clubs in the bag. Yet another penalty. This could go on and on with non-conforming balls and clubs and hitting out of turn and displacing branches or leaves on the practice swing. The question is, do you take all these penalty strokes or is there a point in time where the rules say enough is enough and assess say 4 penalty strokes and we move on?

 
William,
 
I have played in a few rounds where I have wished there was a maximum number of penalty strokes, but there isnt. There is no maximum to the penalty strokes. You have to play a ball with a club from the teeing ground into the hole by a stroke or successive strokes in accordance with the rules. So once you tee off, you have to apply all penalties until you hole your golf ball out.
 
But just for fun lets take your example and apply the penalties for you. Assuming this is the first hole and you are playing stroke play lets see what your score would be when you realized you had 15 clubs.
 
Your tee shot was the only stroke you made at the ball. When you knelt on the towel and built a stance it was a 2-stroke penalty. You hit a wrong ball out of bounds. This is a 2-stroke penalty but the stroke does not count and it is not an out of bounds penalty because it was the wrong ball. When you take a drop for the unplayable that is a 1-stroke penalty. You go back to the bag and get another club and realize you have too many clubs. Since you are on the first hole, it is only a 2-stroke penalty. The fact that you dropped the ball in the wrong place, it would only be a penalty if you played from the wrong spot. Since you have not played the ball yet, we will hold off on that penalty. Rule 20-6 lets you re-drop that golf ball in the correct spot if you realize you error. So at this point in your story you have made one stroke at the ball and are lying 8 with another two-stroke penalty about to be applied.
 
William, I will give you my secret to keeping your scores down. As a PGA Professional, I have the opportunity to play a lot of golf with my students and members. The best way to reduce monster numbers on the golf course because of penalty strokes is to play match play. In your example, as soon as you kneeled on that towel, you lost the first hole. You are 1 down going to the second hole rather than taking a double-digit number. Good Luck in your future matches.
-- Ray
 
Email your on-course rules dispute to Rules Judge Ray