A series of unfortunate events: The past year in rules controversies

Wednesday June 7th, 2017
Lexi Thompson ran into rules-related trouble during the final round of the 2017 ANA Inspiration.
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The ball only moved a fraction of an inch, but it seemed to set the golf world into chaotic motion. How else to explain all the rules controversies that have roiled the game since the so-called "DJ incident" at Oakmont last year? Here’s a chronology of unfortunate events. 

JULY 10, 2016: ANNA NORDQVIST AT THE U.S. WOMEN’S OPEN

Rules are rules. Even the dumb ones. Less than a month has passed since the notorious DJ ruling and here we go again: On the second playoff hole of a three-hole playoff against Brittany Lang, Nordqvist, playing her second shot from a fairway bunker, grazes the sand ever so slightly during her backswing. Never mind that the infraction is inadvertent, gives Nordqvist no advantage and only became apparent through high-def replay, a two-shot penalty is still assessed, and the timing of that assessment could hardly be more awkward. Though the breach occurs on the 17th hole, tournament officials don’t notify the players until the par-5 18th, after Nordqvist strikes her third shot but BEFORE Lang plays hers, giving Lang the opportunity to change her tactics, which she does. The good news is, the governing bodies have since revised the rules, eliminating penalties for infractions that "could not reasonably have been seen with the naked eye." The bad news is, it was too late for Nordqvist.

Anna Nordqvist looks on after being assessed a two stroke penalty for grounding her club in a bunker on the 17th hole during the final round of the U.S. Women's Open.
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JULY 29, 2016: JORDAN SPIETH AT THE PGA CHAMPIONSHIP

Phew. Now, that’s a relief. Or is it? The question arises after the second round at Baltusrol, where Speith’s drive on the 7th hole (his 16th of the day) settles in a puddle on a gravel path to the right of the fairway. Because taking relief from both the casual water and the path would place him in a pine tree, Spieth opts for relief from the puddle only. After dropping twice, he winds up placing his ball on the gravel and playing away. No problem, right? Wrong, some observers say, noting that 1) Spieth appeared to stand with his left foot in the puddle, and that 2) Rule 24-2 requires a player to take "complete relief." The topic sets off the usual back-and-forth in the social media blabbo-sphere. It also grabs the attention of tournament officials, who review the matter carefully before invoking Rule 20-2c/0.8. We won’t bore you with the language of that decision. But the bottom line is: Spieth is in the clear.

Jordan Spieth reacts on the seventh tee during the second round of the 2016 PGA Championship.
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APRIL 2, 2017: LEXI THOMPSON AT THE ANA INSPIRATION

"Is this a joke?" a shocked Thompson asks after walking off the 12th green during Sunday's final round. No. It is quite serious. Four-stroke-penalty serious. As an official informs Thompson, the ruling results from an incident that took place on the 17th green on Saturday, where Thompson is deemed to have improperly marked her ball. The math is simple as it is hard to swallow: two shots for the bad mark, and another two shots for signing an incorrect scorecard at the end of the third round.

APRIL 9, 2017: SERGIO GARCIA AT AUGUSTA NATIONAL

Call it the rules disaster that wasn’t. It erupts during the waning hours on Sunday at the Masters, where Garcia, forced to takes a drop from an unplayable lie on the par-5 13th hole, is shown removing loose impediments from around his ball. After reviewing the video, some armchair officials are convinced that Sergio also moved his ball, and they aren’t shy about saying so on social media. But a firestorm in the making is snuffed out quickly by Augusta National’s rules committee, which scrutinizes the evidence and declares—correctly—that Garcia has done no wrong.

Sergio Garcia plays a shot on the 13th hole during the final round of the 2017 Masters Tournament.
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APRIL 28, 2017: SLOW PLAY PENALTIES AT THE ZURICH CLASSIC

Slow play has been a problem for a long, long time, but the game has been, um, slow to respond to it. But in laid-back New Orleans, it finally happens: the PGA Tour dishes out its first pace of play penalty in 22 years. The scofflaws are playing partners Miguel Angel Carballo and Brian Campbell, both of whom are deemed to have taken too long over shots (read: more than the allotted 40 seconds) during Friday’s foursome play. Their combined misdeeds amount to a one-stroke penalty for their team. Prior to the Zurich, the last time the Tour had meted out a slow play penalty was in 1995, where Glen (All) Day was dinged during the third round of the Honda Classic.

Miguel Angel Carballo of Argentina and Brian Campbell during the second round of the Zurich Classic.
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MAY 6, 2017: WILLY WILCOX AT THE WELLS FARGO CHAMPIONSHIP

Wilcox makes things bad for himself, and then a rules official makes things worse. Still on the course when play is called on Friday evening, Wilcox returns on Saturday to complete the last five holes of his second round. Trouble is, he switched putters overnight, which puts him in violation of the 14-club-max rule. Noticing his mistake, Wilcox notifies a rules official, who in turn notifies Wilcox that he is disqualified. "Made an oops," Wilcox writes on Twitter. "Changed putters mid round. . over night. . that’s a dq." Except that it’s not. Under Rule 4-4, it should have been a four-stroke penalty, two shots per hole, maximum four shots. By the time PGA Tour officials recognize the error, it’s too late. Wilcox has left the course.

Will Wilcox plays his second shot on the fourth hole during round one of the Wells Fargo Championship
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MAY 25, 2017: BRANDEN GRACE AND ERNIE ELS AT THE BMW PGA CHAMPIONSHIP

First he digs his feet in. Then he stands his ground. It all starts on the 13th hole of the opening round where Grace's ball plugs in the face of a green side bunker. While preparing to make the shot, the South African twists his feet into the sand and then summons an official to argue that his stance is impeded by the rubber lining under the sand. Grace is granted a free drop, but several of his fellow pros offer him no leeway. Commenting on SkySports, Paul McGinley calls the drop "ridiculous." Posting on Twitter, Danny Willett phrases his complaint in the form of a question: "@EuropeanTour please explain that drop?! Burying feet enough in to get to the base of the bunker???" For Grace, it’s bad optics, made all the worse by the contrasting comportment of his countryman Ernie Els, who calls a two-shot penalty on himself on the 12th hole after playing a shot from what he believes is the wrong spot.

Branden Grace of South Africa reacts on the 18th green during day three of the BMW PGA Championship.
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