September - 2017

Because those with whom I golf regularly know that I'm a member of both the Southern California Golf Association's Rules & Competitions Committee and the Rules & Competitions Committee of the PGA of Southern California, in other words I'm a rules official at many tournaments sanctioned by those two golf associations, I regularly get asked rules questions. Especially questions about what just happened during a televised event.

Case in point:
Ian Poulter at this year's PGA Championship.
So Ian hits one well off the fairway, into a wooded area with a water hazard beyond the tree line. So he searches for his ball and can't find it but firmly believes it has to be in the water. Where else could it be? Now these guys hit the ball about 300 yards and they're getting older so they may not have 20/15 vision any more, much less X-ray vision that would permit them to see through solid objects…….like trees. Nonetheless he pressures the rules official to concede the ball just has to be in the drink because he can't find it and he knows he hit it right towards this very spot! The rules official caves, despite first informing him that the standard for taking relief is that the player has to be virtually certain that the ball entered the hazard. That means he had to have seen it cross the margin of the hazard and even land in it, which obviously he didn't, and because of the tree line, that couldn't have happened. But relief he got even though a spectator within seconds of taking relief found his ball OUTSIDE THE HAZARD.

This event reminded me of Ernie Els in the 2004 Masters. Ernie hits one way into the toolies, a heavily wooded area, and he did find his ball, but really had no shot with all the tree branches around it. But what was also near his ball was a pile of debris…….stacked branches and cuttings from the groundskeeper and the groundskeeping crew. He asked for, and got, free relief from the pile of debris. Now Decision 25/7 of the Rules of Golf permits relief from stacked stuff created by the groundskeeper if the groundskeeper stacked it temporarily and will eventually remove it. That area of stacked stuff is then treated as ground under repair. We see that at the Muni when we get our heavy rains and wind in the winter with palm tree debris or even eucalyptus trees being blown down. But the mess we see at the Muni is usually located somewhere near where a ball might likely be hit, such as just off the fairway. Relief would obviously be expected, but if the debris was piled, let's say, 50 yards behind the 17th green, should we really expect relief? But in Augusta was that stuff piled deep into the woods really going to be removed from there? I doubt it.

So why do pros get such lenient treatment of the rules when they really shouldn't?

My answer is that the pros are playing for millions of dollars and their livelihood depends on the bounce of their ball. Plus the rules officials are with these players week in and week out and don't want to be the proverbially "bad guy." One note, the PGA rules officials will be more lenient than the USGA rules officials at the US Open, I will guarantee that as they have no weekly relationship with the players.

But wait! What about Lexi Thompson being given a 4 stroke penalty at the recent Dinah Shore tournament in Palm Desert? Pretty harsh, wasn't it? Answer. The USGA immediately changed that rule.

But wait! What about Stewart Cink at the 2008 Zurich Classic when he was disqualified for the following reason:
His drive ended up in the rough. He had to stand in a fairway bunker to hit the ball. His caddie raked his footprints. After he hit his ball the ball landed in a greenside bunker. He didn't include the 2 stroke penalty for violating Rule 13-4 which prohibits testing a similar hazard before hitting his ball from that greenside bunker. He didn't even know he incurred the penalty, and neither would I. Answer. The USGA changed the bunker rule and the disqualification rule for when you didn't know you incurred a penalty, ala Lexi Thompson.

What should you and I do? What anyone should do who loves the game of golf,,,,,,play by the rules…..even if the rules may be interpreted a bit differently for the pros. I think in 2018 the rules will change so much that everyone will be held to the same standard, but until then, don't look to the televised broadcasts of professional tournaments for your proper understanding of the rules even if they have a rules expert on standby.

Just my opinion. Take if for what it's worth. By the way, if you have a rules question, please e-mail me through the club's website and I'll be happy to again give you my opinion.