The History of the Stymie in Golf

Looking back at stymies, and when they disappeared from the game

Detail from a photo that appeared in a 1913 golf instruction book by Jerome Travers shows Travers preparing to chip his stymied ball over the stymie his opponent laid for him.
American Press Association/Flickr Commons/Creative Commons

The "stymie" is an archaic part of golf, no longer in use, in match play (matches involving one ball per side) in which one golfer's ball sat on the putting green between the hole and the opponent's golf ball. In other words, Golfer A's ball blocked the hole for Golfer B's putt. Unless the two balls were within six inches of one another, the golf ball closer to the hole was not lifted during the stymie era.

If you were the golfer whose ball was away in that situation, you were "stymied."

In such a situation, the golfer whose ball was away could attempt to pop or chip his ball up over the ball closer to the hole. He might even try to slice or hook his putt around the intervening ball.

Note again that stymies appeared only in match play (singles or in team match formats in which there was only one ball per side, such as an alternate shot). And if the balls were within six inches of one another, the one closer to the hole was lifted.

What Happened If Your Ball Hit the Ball Closer to the Hole?

Golfer B is away with a stymie sitting on his putting line. He putts his ball, and his putt strikes Golfer A's ball. What happened in that situation? There was no penalty. Golfer B played his ball as it lay. But Golfer A had the option of putting from her ball's new position or returning the ball to its original location.

And if your putt struck your opponent's ball and knocked it into the hole? Your opponent just holed out! (If your opponent was laying 3 and your putt knocked his stymie into the hole, his score was 3.)

Did Golfers Aim to Intentionally Stymie an Opponent?

You bet they did! Stymies were typically a matter of happenstance - you'd rather make your putt, after all.

But maybe you have a situation that calls for a lag putt, and you just want to leave yourself with an easy second putt close to the hole. You might try to lag your ball into your opponent's putting line.

When one golfer left a putt blocking the opponent's ball, it was called "leaving a stymie" or "laying a stymie." "Ben Hogan lagged his putt to one foot and laid a stymie for Byron Nelson."

A "dead stymie" referred to an opponent's ball that was positioned to make it impossible for you to hole out without hitting that other ball.

When Were Stymies Part of Golf?

Stymies were part of golf from the time of the earliest written rules when lifting one ball to allow another ball to be played was permitted only when the balls were touching. In the originally written rules of golf, which date to 1744, this appears:

"If your balls be found anywhere touching one another you are to lift the first ball till you play the last."

No other provision was made for lifting one ball to remove it from another ball's way. According to RulesHistory.com, lifting was extended in 1775 to include balls within six inches of one another; and in 1830 stymies were restricted to matches in which there was one ball per side.

Stymies were mostly absent from stroke play from that point, but they remained part of match play well into the 1900s.

Here are two examples of stymies from the British Pathe newsreel archive on YouTube:

When Were Stymies Eliminated From Golf?

Stymies remained part of matches that used one ball per side until revisions to the Rules of Golf in 1952. According to RulesHistory.com, the word "stymie" rarely appeared in rulebooks, and there were experiments, most of them short-lived, with eliminating stymies earlier than 1952.

In 1938, the USGA modified its rules (but the R&A did not follow suit - the rules were not yet uniform at this point in golf history) so that a ball more than six inches away from another ball but within six inches of the cup could be lifted in match play if it was interfering with the away ball.

The USGA eliminated stymies first, in 1950. But again, since the governing bodies did not yet issue identical rulebooks, stymies continued under R&A rules.

Finally, the USGA and R&A got together and issued joint rules in 1952, and in those 1952 rules lifting a ball on the putting green when it was interfering with another was allowed regardless of the distance between balls. Stymies were finally eliminated from golf.

But prior to 1950 in the United States, and prior to 1952 in R&A-governed matches using one ball per side, being stymied by your opponent's ball on the green was something golfers had to be prepared to deal with.

Do Golfers Still Use 'Stymie' Today?

Some do, yes. Although stymies themselves are long gone from golf, the word remains and occasionally pops up. Today, it is most likely to be applied more generally to any situation in which the golfer finds his golf ball directly behind some object that blocks the way forward.

For example, I was playing in a golf tournament and found my drive landed directly behind a big tree. As I was standing there scratching my chin, mulling my options, the golf course's friendly golf pro came rolling up the cart path, headed somewhere else on the course.

But as he neared he could tell what my predicament was. He pointed to my golf ball and yelled out, "Stymied!" as he raced past.

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