Tour Confidential: Are Tour players overreacting to the rules changes?

March 4, 2019

Check in every Sunday night for the unfiltered opinions of our writers and editors as they break down the hottest topics in the sport, and join the conversation by tweeting us @golf_com. This week we discuss (surprise, surprise) more rules hiccups, the USGA fighting back, Tiger Woods’s return to Bay Hill, overrated and underrated golf courses and more.

1. Justin Thomas has been among the most outspoken critics of the new Rules of Golf, joining the likes of Rickie Fowler, Adam Scott and Billy Horschel. On Saturday, the USGA fired back, responding to a Thomas tweet by saying, “Justin, we need to talk. You’ve cancelled every meeting we’ve planned with you, but we are reaching out again … We’d love nothing more than to give you a seat. Call us.” (On Sunday, Thomas called the response “upsetting” and “inaccurate.”) Are players overreacting to the changes, or is their carping warranted?

Sean Zak, assistant editor (@sean_zak): Right now, they’re overreacting, because they’ve had years to react appropriately and are just now doing so. I listened to a 20-month-old podcast of ours Sunday morning. It had a note from the USGA in it regarding the proposed rules changes and how they’re looking for feedback. I don’t pity the players for just now really getting involved.

John Wood, caddie for Matt Kuchar (@johnwould): Players are reacting to penalties that have absolutely nothing to do with the competition or a player gaining a competitive advantage. The penalties being handed out are like giving a student an F for a typo on a term paper. They’re bureaucratic in nature. Anyone with a cursory knowledge of golf can see that none of the penalties handed out for a caddie supposedly lining up a player are, in fact, a caddie lining up a player, including the one this week with Adam Schenk. Rickie taking a drop from shoulder height in Mexico, while technically wrong, had absolutely nothing to do with the competition or what score he was going to make on the hole. I’ve been to two of the meetings the USGA had for Tour players and caddies, once in Hawaii and once in Phoenix. To be frank, there were many answers the USGA officials either didn’t know the answer to, or responded with something like “we didn’t foresee that.” One example: I can still line my player up on, say, a 5-foot putt by standing on the opposite side of the hole and saying “a touch left, a little more, perfect,” and then walk out of his line and watch him make the putt. Here, we are gaining a competitive advantage by my lining him up, but we aren’t going to incur a penalty because I wasn’t standing behind him. There were others. What Justin meant was that maybe a thoughtful ex-Tour player and Tour caddie (Peter Jacobsen and Jim Mackay come to mind) should have been in the room WHILE these rules were being discussed, before they were implemented. Maybe they would have been able to address these questions we are having issues with now, then. In the NFL, when a pass interference penalty is called, and then rescinded when a referee deems the ball uncatchable, they are in effect saying “Yes, it was technically pass interference, but the ball was 30 feet over his head anyway, and it didn’t affect the competition, so no penalty.” Golf needs something like this to overturn a penalty that by letter of the law may be a penalty, but in fact has nothing with gaining a competitive advantage.

Michael Bamberger, senior writer: Well said, John, and the rollout has been a mess, BUT the changes have been in the works for a year and you cannot have a game, this one in particular, without a true governing body, and that body can’t be functional without an abiding respect for what it does. A simple and drastic solution would be for the Tour to just makes its own rule book, and maybe it should. The game could thrive with multiple rule books. Just as baseball/softball/kickball!

Alan Shipnuck, senior writer (@Alan_Shipnuck): Good points from our man inside the ropes but I’m honestly tired of the Tour players’ constant carping. Drop the ball from knee-height and don’t let your caddie stand behind you while you’re getting into the shot – is it really that hard?!

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2. Was it inappropriate for the USGA to admonish Thomas so publicly, or was it about time the governing body stuck up for itself?

Zak: I think both of those things can be true. It’s not exactly proper form for a governing body to do it in a tweet reply, but then again, how many times do you want to just let Thomas call you out publicly, especially if you feel he’s doing so unjustly? Props to the USGA for sticking up for itself, but perhaps next time it’ll use a more official platform than the one with a limited character count.

Wood: No. Is it possible that Justin Thomas knows more about tournament golf at the highest level than its governing body? In my opinion, yes.

Bamberger: Totally agree. Sophomoric in tone, ridiculous in intent.

Shipnuck: Per my comment above, the USGA is clearly tired of the whining, too. It was inappropriate…and awesome. One of the organization’s problems is that it is so remote. Mixing it up on social media will help the blue coats understand and engage better with players, fans and scribes, and it will also help from a PR standpoint, too.

3. More rules fun! On Saturday, Adam Schenk was retroactively assessed a two-stroke penalty for violation of Rule 10.2b (caddie alignment) that occurred on the 17th hole on Friday. (This ruling led to Thomas and the USGA butting heads.) Should penalties be enforced retroactively?

Zak: I’m okay with penalties being handed out retroactively, but I think we need a specific time frame within which it’s allowed. The longer the wait, the more significant an example like Schenk’s gets for the sake of the tournament.

Wood: If they’re real, incontrovertible, then yes, but only after the round. Once the round is over and official, no. If a Thursday infraction is caught on Friday, it’s doable. But if a Saturday infraction isn’t caught until Monday, what do you do? Erase that trophy presentation from your memory? Let’s say Player A is trailing Player B by one shot late on Sunday and decides to take a risk knowing he needs a birdie to tie Player B. He doesn’t pull off the shot, makes double and falls from 2nd place to 8th, then finds out after the round that Player B actually incurred a penalty on Saturday that they just found, and Player A was actually leading when he took the risk. Far Fetched? Yes. Possible? Also yes. Only before the next round commences.

Shipnuck: Disagree. It’s a four-day competition – the scores carry over, and so too does the baggage. If an infraction occurs, it occurs. Sometimes it takes a day or even two to sort things out.

Bamberger: Exactly. The 72 holes is the 60 minutes of NFL football.

4. Vijay Singh, at 56, contended at the Honda and nearly became the oldest winner in Tour history, a record held by Sam Snead, who won the 1965 Greater Greensboro Open at 52. Other than Singh, which player in the 45-or-older set is most likely to take down Snead’s mark?

Zak: The only answer here is Phil Mickelson. Better question: Could 61-year-old Bernhard Langer demolish Snead’s mark with two years worth of Tour starts?

Wood: Agree. Phil is the only answer.

Shipnuck: Of course, Phil is still four years away! That’s a long time. I’d love to see Langer cherry-pick a Tour schedule of finesse courses: Silverado, Mayakoba, Sea Island, Waialae, La Quinta, Pebble, Riv, etc. I’m sure he would contend a few times, and given his guile and pressure-proof game, who knows.

Bamberger: Davis, Phil, Fred, Langer, Vijay, Stricker could all still win on the regular Tour. Maybe David Toms.

In all honesty, I think Tiger is ready to win again, and soon.

5. The Tour heads to Bay Hill this week as Rory McIlroy defends his title in a field that’s also headlined by Tiger Woods, who has won their eight times. Tiger or Rory: who ya got?

Zak: As solid as Tiger has been lately, Rory has been much better, so I’ll go with him. I’m already nervous just thinking about Rory in good form heading toward Magnolia Lane.

Wood: I’ll just hope for a seven-hole playoff between those two, with one of them making a 30-footer in the dark to finish the tournament. I’m not asking for too much, am I? In all honesty, I think Tiger is ready to win again, and soon.

Shipnuck: I’ll take the field.

Bamberger: Alan getting in here before is killing my mojo: field. Of those two, Tiger as low man, could see a top 10.

6. Last week, six of GOLF’s Top 100 course panelists named their most overrated and underrated courses in GOLF’s World Top 100 list. Name yours.

Zak: I have never played Carnoustie, but walking it for a week at last year’s Open I don’t think I can consider it the 28th-best course in the world. Great test of golf, but that feels a touch high, at large. As for underrated, Streamsong Red feels like it’s right on the edge of cracking that ranking and should be included.

Bamberger: I’ll flip ya, young Zak. C’noustie underrated, S’song Red overrated. Possible to play the former with one ball. Not the latter, at least not for this 93-shooter.

Wood: Baltusrol. It’s hard, yes, but I don’t think of any hole on that course and say “Wow.” Underrated? Pasatiempo in Santa Cruz, Calif. A brilliant Alister MacKenzie reworked by Tom Doak.

Shipnuck: Overrated: Valderrama. Claustrophobic and boring. Honorable mention to Oak Hill, Winged Foot (East), Oakland Hills (South) and Baltusrol (Lower), which might actually be the same course under different names. Underrated: Cruden Bay. How on earth is this gem ranked 77th? The perfect golf course in my book.