Image: Chipping over a stymie ball
When Jack Nicklaus started playing golf in 1950 at the age of ten, he didn’t need to put a ball marker in his pocket. It would be another two years before there was any need to mark a ball on a green, thanks to the ending of the notorious Stymie rule.
If you’ve ever been ‘Stymied’ during a round of golf you are probably aged over 80. Like Jack, you wouldn’t have needed a golf ball marker before 1952. The Stymie rule, the golf equivalent of a ‘snooker’, forced your opponent to putt round your ball, or grab a lofted niblick and chip over it. Green keepers must have hated that rule.
Here’s a link to a British Pathé clip on YouTube showing Ben Hogan going over Mike Turnesa’s ball during the 1948 PGA Golf Championship at Norwood Hills Country Club in St. Louis.
The Stymie rule applied if two balls were more than 6 inches apart on the green. The player closest to the hole could leave their ball in the way, in the hope that their opponent might knock it into the hole with their ball, giving them a free hole-out. To avoid that, the other player just had to go round or over. They were “Stymied”. However, if the balls were closer than 6 inches, the closest ball could be lifted, without marking, to let an opponent play.
New rules coin it in
After a few rule change experiments during the seventeen and eighteen hundreds, in 1938 the USGA changed the stymie rule to allow the ball causing the stymie to be lifted if ithin six inches of the hole. In 1950 they banned the rule on US turf and the R&A eventually abolished the stymie rule worldwide in 1952.
A new rule was established so that on the putting green the ball should be marked if interfering with play or likely to be hit. The rule recommended using a small coin, or similar. And so, the ball marker became a required piece of golf gear.
Created because of a rule change, the golf ball marker is one of the most basic, yet recent pieces of golf equipment allowed in competition play. It hasn’t changed much in that time.
The rules stipulate that a golf ball marker must ‘be something that is artificial’, not a leaf, a feather, or a piece of grass. So, a coin became the most popular choice and still is today, along with poker chips, souvenir ball markers and anything else in the pocket.
Historically the ball marker was just to record the original location of a lifted ball and had no other function. Although the convention is to mark the ball from behind, in line with the hole, this is not mandatory. You can mark the ball ‘right next to it’ wherever you like, just as long as you replace the ball in its original spot.
Golf ball markers are not high profile in the professional game. Not yet anyway. Tiger Woods uses a 1932 US quarter dollar, representing the year his father was born. Phil Mickelson prefers a silver dollar which was owned by his grandfather. And you can’t help but feel that there’s an element of superstition about the choice of ball marker.
Ryder Cup concession
Probably the most famous marker was owned by Tony Jacklin to mark a 2-foot putt he had to hole to tie the 1969 Ryder Cup. Jack Nicklaus walked over and picked up that marker, handed it to Tony and conceded the putt in a famous sporting gesture in the spirit of the game.
Nicklaus told Jacklin, “I don’t believe you would have missed that but I’d never give you the opportunity in these circumstances.”
That concession led to the first ever tie in Ryder Cup history.
A gift from Tony’s wife, the marker was made of silver with a spike on the reverse. Sound familiar That marker was sold at auction in 2021 for $9,662.
Image: Golden Age Auctions
Whatever you use for a golf ball marker, look after it well. It may not be an original 71-year-old piece of golf equipment, or worth $9,662, but the humble ball marker is certainly one of the most useful small items in the game of golf. It’s saved many famous greens from divots and scrapes caused by stymied golfers and now its saving them putts through better alignment.
Neil Hart is a co-inventor of the PuttBANDIT ball marker and rarely concedes a 2-foot putt in match-play.
While every attempt has been made to verify the details within this blog, historic golf rule accuracy may vary by source.
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