Golf’s 5 biggest rules controversies of 2019, ranked!

December 20, 2019

Before we get to the main event, let’s run through the Honorable Mentions, in some vaguely alphabetical order, to remind us just how much intrigue the Rules of Golf provided in 2019:

Adam Schenk’s caddie line-up incident. Alex Cejka’s greens-reading incident. Ariya Jutanugarn and Amy Olson’s backstopping incident. Brendan Steele’s alignment stick incident. David Lipsky’s late to the tee incident. Haotong Li’s caddie line-up incident. Harold Varner III’s assembling-a-driver-on-the-course incident. Jesper Parnevik’s what’s-a-mulligan-anyway incident. Kendall Dye’s what-club-you-hittin’ incident. Lee Ann Walker’s 58 penalty strokes incident. Marciel Siem’s preferred-lies-everywhere incident. Matt Kuchar’s mystery pitch mark incident. Rory McIlroy’s what’s-a-rock-anyways incident. Russell Henley’s wrong-Pro-V1 incident. Team USA’s score-in-the-wrong-spot incident.

Woof! And yeah, those are just the also-rans. When it came to rules controversies, the cup runneth over. Here were the five biggest lightning-rod moments from 2019.

5. Billy Mayfair

The penalty: Mayfair, tied for the lead on Saturday of the Invesco QQQ Championship, ran into two separate rules issues in just seven holes. On No. 11, Mayfair conducted a lengthy search for his ball, which he eventually found. On No. 17, Mayfair’s ball moved six inches after he addressed it with his wedge, but his explanation to the rules official was misleading, according to Golf Channel broadcasters. Two potential penalties.

The verdict: Strap yourself in: First, when Mayfair got into the scoring area after his round, he was shown what happened on No. 17 and acknowledged that he had in fact caused the ball to move. Then the volunteer scorer called in, adamant that Mayfair had taken well over the allotted three minutes to find his ball back at No. 11. After reviewing the footage, the search was determined to have taken 4:50 or more. As a result, he had played what was technically an “out-of-play” ball. DQ!

Notable because: Double rules conundrums. Changing stories. Volunteer call-ins. Second-guessing announcers. And of course, the two most dramatic letters in the game: DQ. This one had it all.

4. Rickie Fowler

The penalty: At the WGC-Mexico, Fowler shanked one out of play and then took a shoulder-height drop — which is a penalty under golf’s new rules, if you don’t catch yourself in time. The next week, Fowler remembered the proper drop form but decided to have some fun with it, exploring an alternative way to drop from knee-height that made for a great screenshot.

The verdict: He was penalized the first time and made triple; no penalty the second time, of course. Fully legal!

Notable because: The incident came in the height of the uproar over the new rules. Because it’s Rickie Fowler. Because we’re all third-graders at heart.

3. Denny McCarthy (ft. Justin Thomas)

The penalty: Denny McCarthy was penalized at the Waste Management Phoenix Open for his caddie allegedly helping line him up — although the video evidence didn’t necessarily support that version of events.

The verdict: Two-stroke penalty, at first, for violation of new rule 10.2b(4). But then, after the clip of the shot in question went viral, the Tour reconsidered and effectively tossed out the penalty strokes just a day later.

Notable because: Of the reaction it garnered from other players rallying to McCarthy’s defense. Luke Donald. Eddie Pepperell. Brandt Snedeker. And the star of the show, Justin Thomas.

Thomas spoke out against the ruling and picked what ended up being an extremely awkward fight with the USGA over the matter. Credit to both parties for eventually moving on from this, but it’s a reminder just how contentious this new rules rollout was. Change is hard!

2. Sergio Garcia vs. Matt Kuchar

The penalty: A multi-step process. For clarity, here’s how it went down:

1. A frustrated Sergio Garcia faces a seven-footer for par at No. 7 in his quarterfinals match with Matt Kuchar at the WGC-Match Play. He misses the putt left of the hole, and it rolls past the cup — less than a foot away.

2. Acting quickly, Garcia goes to scrape in the putt backhanded, presuming the putt is good and the hole is halved. But his tap-in lips out.

3. Matt Kuchar points out that, uh, that putt wasn’t exactly good. To quote the man: “I saw him off the green, I said, ‘Sergio, I didn’t say anything, I’m not sure how this works out.'” The ruling comes down: Kuchar wins the hole.

4. Garcia suggests a remedy for the situation. Because Kuchar would have given that putt, the match should have remained Kuchar 1 Up. Garcia points out that Kuchar could concede a hole — but Kuchar doesn’t bite. “I thought about that and said I didn’t like that idea either,” he said.

The verdict: Loss of hole for Garcia and an eventual 2 Up win for Kuchar.

Notable because: Match play rules awkwardness is nearly impossible to beat. Also because Kuchar and Garcia each ended up in strange headlines all year long, because it was a decidedly sticky situation and especially because nobody had ever seen anything quite like it.

1. Patrick Reed

The penalty: You already know this one. Two strokes to Patrick Reed at the Hero World Challenge for improving his line of play in a waste area by scraping some sand away with his wedge.

The verdict: Two strokes and a whole load of controversy.

Notable because: Even if it had just been the two strokes, this would have been relevant — Reed ended up losing the tournament by just two strokes, after all. Instead, it took on a life of its own. Because the Presidents Cup loomed, because Patrick Reed was involved, because it involved accusations that included the word “cheater,” which always raises alarm bells in the golf world.

By the end of the week, nearly everyone on the U.S. Team had addressed it multiple times, the Aussie crowd had let Reed hear it and his caddie, fed up, had lashed out by shoving a fan. Quite the fallout for a little penalty, but this is golf! The rules giveth and the rules taketh away. We expect they’ll do so in 2020, too.

To receive GOLF’s all-new newsletters, subscribe for free here.