The Etiquetteist: Can you take a free drop and feel guilt-free on shots lost in the rough?
Philosophical question: if a golf ball falls in the rough, and you absolutely, positively saw where it landed but you still can’t find it, can you take a free drop with a clean conscience?
The unequivocal answer is: it depends. The official Rules of Golf do not allow it. But in certain circumstances, the rules of etiquette make it OK.
Let’s say you’re standing on the first tee with your buddies, peering down a fairway fringed by gnarly U.S. Open-style rough. It’s all but guaranteed that at some point in the round, each and every one of you is going to spray a shot into that thick stuff. Since you don’t have a spotter (this isn’t a tournament, right?) and you don’t want to slow down play with fruitless searches, there’s nothing wrong with calling a quick huddle with your friends and establishing guidelines for balls that go missing right before your eyes. You all saw where that shot went. You know it’s in there somewhere. Is it really lost? Nah. In this case, at least, you’re not obligated to play it that way.
What guidelines you establish for the drop — two club lengths from point of entry; as close as possible to the spot where you think the ball wound up — is up to you.
So long as everyone agrees, you’ve got yourself a local rule for the day. (As part of this arrangement, you should also all agree that any scores altered by your local rule not be posted toward your handicap, as that wouldn’t be fair to others outside your group.)
In New England, this is known as the “autumn leaf” decision, as in, play on without penalty on shots that vanish in the foliage. And it makes a lot of sense, provided you have clarity and unanimity, and both are established in advance.
This is important. If not everyone in your group agrees to it, you can’t adopt the rule. Nor can you invoke it spontaneously, mid-round, just because you think you deserve it. Down that path likes anarchy. And arguments. And ugliness.
If, after starting your round, it becomes clear that you’d all be better adopting some version of the “autumn leaf” rule, it’s not too late to propose it to your partners, just as you might suggest playing winter rules when you get out on the course and notice that conditions call for it.
That’s the beauty of etiquette. It allows for reason to rule the day on days when the rules are unreasonable.