This is a question that came up with a friend this week. Many golfers, especially this time of year, play "winter" rules or preferred lies. Some golfers play this way all year long. During the winter conditions when you may get bare lies, patchy grass, or when overseeding is not growing playing preferred lies is a choice taken by many.
Does playing these conditions affect your game?
Absolutely it does, in more ways than one too. Playing prefer lies gets a golfer used to moving their golf ball to a good lie on every shot. This gets golfers used to a particular type of lie and allows them the best chance of hitting their best shot. This can give those golfers a false sense of their ability. If they are only used to those "perfect" lies they would not shoot the same score if they played the ball as it lies. Additionally, this can give that golfer a lower handicap than they should have if they are turning those scores in for handicapping purposes. Which by the way is technically not allowed by the USGA.
According to the USGA you are not supposed to enter scores into the handicap system a golfer does not play according to the rules of golf. Local rules may apply but rarely will any club post a local rule stating preferred lies or "winter" rules. The USGA does not say this to be cruel to golfers but as stated before it is about having an accurate handicap. If a golfer shoots an average score of 82 under preferred lies but 90 playing by the USGA rules that is an 8-stroke difference in average score and handicap.
A friend brought this up to me this week. If the group they normally play in plays by these rules all the time but they play by the actual rules other times is their handicap accurate? That answer is no but just because a group plays that way does not mean they do. Plus with an accurate handicap, they can either get or give up fewer strokes to the group because they have an accurate handicap.
The advantage to playing by the USGA rules however can make you a better golfer. You get used to playing from different lies and how to play in various conditions. Then when you get those great lies it is easier for the golfer. Also, you have a better chance of not breaking a rule if you never touch your golf ball other than when permitted by the rules. This is something I have seen happen during a competitive Pro-Am. A golfer was so used to playing "winter" rules he bumped his ball with his club to a perfect lie on the very first hole. It was purely out of habit and not in any way an intentional cheat. He felt bad, apologized, and we all moved on. Luckily for him, it did not affect scoring on the hole and he did not do it again for the rest of the round.
The bottom line is if you play by "winter" rules or preferred lies it is perfectly fine for the enjoyment of the game. If you do it and are trying to keep a handicap then you need to determine which is more important. Would you rather bump the ball to a good lie and have fun or would you rather have an accurate handicap?