2006: Stymie: Match play’s odd relic of chance

By Joe Passov

The dramatic storylines of recent Ryder Cups and other team events have helped reignite American golfers’ interest in match play. But Bobby Jones believed match play would be even more compelling if one of the game’s historical oddities, the stymie, were reinstituted.

“With the stymie in the game, match-play golf becomes an exciting duel in which the player must always be on guard against a sudden, often demoralizing thrust,” Jones wrote in his 1960 book, Golf Is My Game.

The stymie, as defined by Michael Corcoran in The Golf Dictionary, “described a situation in match play wherein one player’s ball blocked another’s path to the hole. The only remedy for the player whose path

was blocked (stymied)” was to putt around or chip over the intruding ball, known as jumping a stymie.

“The term is a bit confusing, however,” Corcoran wrote, “because a ball played with the intention of blocking the hole was a stymie, as was any shot played in attempt to go around or over the ball.”

The stymie was an outgrowth of one of golf’s original 13 rules, as codified in 1744, whereby the only time you could lift your ball between the time you teed off and holed out was if it was touching another player’s ball. In 1775, the Honorable Company of Edinburgh Golfers amended the rule so that a ball could be lifted if it was within 6 inches of another. Many scorecards used to sport a 6-inch diagonal line to measure whether a proper stymie had been laid.

Because of its considerable element of chance, the stymie was never universally popular, but its staunchest supporters included two of the game’s best ball-strikers and tacticians, Jones and J.H. Taylor.

“More than anything else,” Jones wrote, “it points to the value of always being closer to the hole on the shot to the green and after the first putt.”

The stymie’s demise played out over more than a century, beginning in 1830, when the Montrose Club in Scotland specified that the rule did not apply to stroke play or fourball matches. In 1833, the R&A dropped the stymie from its rules, though it reappeared a year later.

In the U.S., dating from 1921, the Western Golf Association conducted all of its competitions without the stymie. The U.S. Golf Association altered its rules in 1938 to allow any ball positioned within 6 inches of the hole to be lifted if it interfered with another ball, and in 1944, the PGA of America did away with stymies in the PGA Championship. Finally, as a result of the Joint Rules Conference between the R&A and the USGA in December 1951, the stymie became a relic of a time when luck, along with the match play and its idiosyncrasies, was a more accepted aspect of the game.

– Joe Passov is a free-lance writer from Phoenix.

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