If you're of a certain age, you might remember watching stymies in golf. Whether you saw them in person, or you saw them on TV or older golf footage, stymies were a fascinating part of golf.
For the younger generations, though, stymies are just a term kind of thrown around with some nostalgia for the good, old days of the game.
What is a stymie?
The word stymie is original to golf. It originated in golf. According to golf writer David Owen, stymie first appeared in a published dictionary in 1857, describing "preventing or hindering the progress of" something, namely a golf ball going toward the hole. However, the concept existed from the earliest days of the game, with the rules around stymies evolving at different points in the mid-1700s and early 1800s.
In match play, golfers could attempt to position their golf ball in such a way that it would get in the line of their opponent's next putt. That was a stymie. A block was typically considered a stymie when two balls were in the direct line of each other on the putting green, but there was at least 6 inches between them. If there were 6 inches of space or less between them, the blocking ball was lifted because there wasn't enough space for a golfer to try to putt the ball around their opponent's blocking ball.
If there was a stymie, the blocked ball could not be moved, and a player would have to find a way around or over it.
The idea was that the stymie was part of the strategy of match play. It didn't come into play in stroke play or in matches where teams had more than one ball in play at a time.
How were stymies played?
Golfers typically tried to bypass a stymie by stabbing at their ball with a wedge, looking to pop their ball over the blocker and into the hole.
In the mid-19th century, wooden putters could impart enough spin on a modern ball to spin around a blocking ball. Some players even tried to putt their opponent's ball out of the way, while trying to get their ball closer to the hole.
However, there were consequences to any approach that didn't involve going safely around the blocking ball. The player with the blocking ball had all the advantage. If a stymied player's ball struck their opponent's blocking ball, the opponent had the option of playing their next shot from where their blocking ball was deflected or the original spot. Even further, if the stymied player knocked their opponent's ball in the hole, the opponent's ball was considered holed without taking an additional stroke.
Do stymies still exist?
Stymies are no longer part of the Rules of Golf. They were eliminated in 1952 from the first-ever jointly issues Rules of Golf from the USGA and R&A, two years after the USGA eliminated them from their then-separate rule book. The USGA had sought to eliminate stymies sooner -- after all, stroke play had taken hold more in the United States, so there was less of a need for the stymie. In 1938, the USGA had changed the rules around stymies to allow a player to lift an opponent's blocking ball that was within 6 inches of the cup -- even if the blocking ball was more than 6 inches away from the player's ball.
Now, golfers typically mark their ball on the putting surface, whether it's obstructing their opponent's path or not. A player can also ask their opponent to move their mark so it will not interfere with their planned line.