Cliffhanging putts must be tapped in without delay

The putt that could be blown in the cup is probably golf's most disturbing shot. Disturbing because it counts the same as a 250-yard drive. Most golfers resist taking a stroke from such ridiculously close range, yet a little-known rule limits the amount of time one can wait for the ball to drop. The rule achieved a measure of notoriety at this year's US Open, when it cost South Africa's Denis Watson a chance at winning his first major title. Watson finished two strokes behind winner Andy North, but could have forced a playoff had he not been penalized two shots in the opening round. The penalty was issued when he waited 35 seconds, or 25 seconds beyond the allowable limit, for a putt to drop, thus scoring a 6 instead of a 4.

In retrospect, the gaff proved nearly as heartbreaking as Roberto de Vicenzo's in the 1968 Masters. The Argentinian finished tied for the lead with Bob Goalby, but wound up second when he signed an inaccurate scorecard, one on which his playing partner had mistakenly given him a par rather than a birdie. Jackie Pung was disqualified in a similar circumstance when she seemingly had won the 1957 US Women's Open.

Watson's mistake was in not knowing the rule that applies to a ball overhanging the hole. In such situations, a player cannot hover over his ball more than a few seconds (and not more than 10) to determine whether it's at rest.

This rule evolved to prevent golfers from waiting an unusually long time on the grounds that the ball might still be moving, even if imperceptibly. Almost any length wait could be justified on this basis, of course, and at the 1963 Phoenix Open Don January waited seven minutes for a putt to drop on the final hole. It never did. But the incident did inspire the clarifying time rule .

In a roundabout way, this once led to the disqualification of Grier Jones at the Heritage Open. Jones's long wait for a ball on the lip of the cup was not detected when it occurred, but the violation later came to light in a TV replay. When the penalty strokes were added to his score, his card became inaccurate, prompting the disqualification. (When a higher score is improperly recorded, as in de Vicenzo's case, it simply stands.)

Most golfers, of course, don't know or claim to understand all the game's statutes. Among present professionals, however, Tom Watson perhaps enjoys the best grasp of the subject. Several years ago he shared his knowledge in a Random House book, ``The Rules of Golf,'' co-authored by Frank Hannigan of the US Golf Association. It makes fascinating reading for the avid player interested in the whys and wherefores of the rules.

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