Tour Players Don’t Know All the Rules

The U.S. Open is topic du jour at the Golf Academy this week. In Rules of Golf this morning, we discussed some of the different rulings that we saw play out in Round 1 at Chambers Bay. Two specific incidents caught our attention. They illustrate that these Tour players, even though they’re the best in the world, don’t know all the rules, and they certainly don’t know all of the options available to them:

Jordan Spieth knew the Local Rule at Chambers Bay - stones in bunkers are movable obstructions.
Jordan Spieth knew the Local Rule at Chambers Bay – stones in bunkers are movable obstructions.

Jordan Spieth Knows the Rules, Greg Norman Does Not
On the Par 3 9th Hole Thursday, Jordan Spieth hit his tee shot into the right greenside bunker. If you noticed, Spieth bent down to remove several stones near his ball – in the bunker. Normally, this would be a two-stroke penalty. But Chambers Bay has a Local Rule allowing players to remove stones in bunkers. Rule 23-1 Note: If the ball lies in a hazard, the player must not touch or move any loose impediment lying in or touching the same hazard.

Greg Norman then asked a befuddling question of rules expert and former USGA Executive Director David Fay from the comfort of the FOX Sports broadcast booth. Said Norman, “What is the definition of a stone, the size of it? Is it like a gravel of sand? Obviously not. But a stone is a stone.” Huh? Even a golf course architect and professional golfer doesn’t know! A stone is not the consistency of sand, but is something that can be picked up individually.

The Decisions On the Rules of Golf has a section on Stones in Bunkers:

Stones are, by definition, loose impediments and, when a player’s ball is in a hazard, a stone lying in or touching the hazard may not be touched or moved (Rule 13-4). However, stones in bunkers may represent a danger to player (a player could be injured by a stone struck by the player’s club in an attempt to play the ball) and they may interfere with the proper playing of the game. When permission to lift a stone in a bunker is warranted, the following Local Rule is recommended: “Stones in bunkers are movable obstructions (Rule 24-1 applies).”

Calling stones movable obstructions (and not loose impediments) is an important distinction. If a player’s ball happens to move in the process of removing a loose impediment, the player incurs a penalty of one stroke under Rule 18, Ball at Rest Moved. But if the ball moves in the process of moving a movable obstruction, the ball is replaced without penalty. Spieth may have saved himself a stroke, and perhaps an injury, by knowing the Local Rule.

Camilo Villegas Doesn’t Know the Rules Either
When I watched this scene play out at the driveable Par 4 12th, I found myself yelling at the television. Senility has hit me sooner than even I expected. Villegas ended-up in the bunker just short of the green, and declared his ball unplayable, which a player can do at any place on the course, except when the ball is in a water hazard.

By not knowing all of his options, Camilo Villegas cost himself a few strokes.
By not knowing all of his options, Camilo Villegas likely cost himself a few strokes.

Villegas had three options under Rule 28, all under penalty of one stroke:

* Proceed under the stroke and distance provision of Rule 27-1, meaning he would have to go back and re-tee; or

* Drop a ball within two club-lengths of the spot where the ball lay, but not nearer the hole; or

* Drop a ball behind the point where the ball lay, keeping that point directly between the hole and the spot on which the ball is dropped, with no limit to how far behind that point the ball may be dropped

Villegas obviously didn’t know all of his options, and as far as I can tell, the rules official certainly didn’t explain them to him. I know this because Villegas elected to drop his ball within two club-lengths of the unplayable lie. And that’s when I started yelling.

If Villegas had elected to drop a ball behind the point where the ball lay with no limit to how far behind, he would have been sitting pretty in the fairway getting ready to hit his 3rd shot. Why didn’t he go back?? The rule clearly says no limit! I’ll tell you why. I see players do it all the time – even at the Golf Academy. Players see any backwards movement as losing ground to the hole. Instead, they should consider all of their options.

Here’s how it played out – Villegas called-in a rules official to supervise his drop. After two unsuccessful drop attempts, he carefully placed his ball in a clump of fescue grass. Laying three. Villegas flubbed his first attempt, and the ball bounced back into the bunker and appeared to roll right into one of the rules official’s footprint. Villegas could have had the footprints made by the rules official raked, but he didn’t. Laying four. Again, Villegas couldn’t extricate himself from the bunker, but this time the ball rolled right back into the divot he just made. Laying five. By the time he eventually did get out, Villegas was mumbling at a triple-bogey seven. Just like that, he went from two-under-par to one-over.

Fay put it best when he said, “Sometimes, what seems to be the most logical option following the Unplayable Ball Rule, doesn’t turn out to be your best option.” Villegas likely cost himself a few strokes by not knowing the Rules.

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