By Ben Vigil | Nebraska Golf Association, Manager of Association Services
Another month, and Golf's New Rules are still the talk of the golf world. Even though the new Rules have eliminated several penalties from the game, the focus seems to be on the few penalties that have been dolled out due to confusion or lack of knowledge of the new Rules. We took a look at some of these instances to try to clear up some misconceptions and keep you informed. Keep scrolling to read more.
Rickie's Unfortunate Situation (Again)
Rickie Fowler can't seem to catch a break. After his unfortunate situation at the Waste Management Phoenix Open in January, where he battled through a tough break to still pull out the win, you might think the golfing gods would show some mercy. Unfortunately, it wasn't long before he had another Rules incident, though this one was simply caused by an absent-minded moment and bad timing.
During the second round of the WGC Mexico Championship, Rickie shanked his approach shot on his opening hole out-of-bounds. Clearly flustered, he quickly got a ball from his caddie and dropped. Unfortunately, that drop came from shoulder height, and even more unfortunate, his caddie was busy zipping his bag back up after retrieving a new ball and did not see the incorrect drop. Had he seen it, he likely would have instructed Rickie to correct the drop, which he could have done without penalty. Instead, neither of the two realized the mistake and Rickie made his next stroke, locking in the penalty for an incorrect drop and leading to a triple-bogey to start his round.
Now, if you didn't catch the mistake in there, the new Rules require a drop to be made from knee height. If a ball is dropped from any other height, and that drop is not corrected, the player incurs a one-stroke penalty. Many people were upset and firing off takes that said he didn't gain an advantage by doing this, so he shouldn't be penalized. This is not how this Rule (14.3b) works though. It is very clear cut; if you don't drop in the right way, you are in breach and get the one-stroke penalty. This has always been the case in the Rules of Golf. Can you imagine needing to determine if a player received an advantage by dropping incorrectly in order to apply a penalty? Rickie breached a Rule, and was penalized. It's quite simple.
This situation led to more complaining about the new dropping height, even from Rickie, who poked fun of it with a...creative form (see below). He seemed to just be having some fun with the new Rule, and it actually would have been a proper drop, if released from knee-height. However, he showed his dislike for the new procedure when talking to the media.
“To me, we all want to grow the game," Rickie said. “You’re not going to grow the game by making it look funny or making guys do unathletic things. You want to make it look cool. Ultimately we’re trying to bring more of a younger generation in, and when you have people making fun of something it doesn’t do the game any justice.”
It would appear that Rickie is doing the exact thing he said should not be done, making fun of the game. It's understandable that Tour Pros don't want to look silly, but golf is their job, and they should know and follow the Rules. He's bringing more attention to something that is a very logical and good change to the Rules of Golf.
Why would anyone rather drop from shoulder height? The knee-height drop makes it much easier to get your ball in play with just one drop, and also gives the player a much better chance at a decent lie. If a cool way to drop is the key to growing the game, then we've been wasting a lot of time.
DJ & Rory Relief Situations
If you watched the final round of the WGC Mexico Championship, you might have been confused why Dustin Johnson was given relief from a cart path and why Rory McIlroy was not, when both also had interference from a tree.
This happened in the midst of a Sunday where Rory was trying to chase down DJ, who was running away from the field. DJ's tee shot on the fifth hole rolled up directly behind a tree, and he would have been forced to play backwards toward the fairway. With this direction of play, it appeared his right foot would be on the cart path, and he was granted relief. This gave him a chance to go at the green, which he eventually did and made par.
On the next hole, Rory found himself in a similar situation, right up against a tree. However, to get back to the fairway, he would have to play left-handed and his stance was not on the path. He could have played right handed over to another fairway. In this case, his right foot was right on the edge of the path. He was denied relief and had to punch out sideways left-handed, eventually making bogey, and giving DJ more breathing room on his way to the win.
This basically comes down to a judgement call by each referee. Rule 16.1 grants relief for interference from Abnormal Course Conditions, such as cart paths, but denies relief when something other than the ACC makes it "clearly unreasonable" to play the shot or if interference exists only because the player "chooses a club, type of stance or swing or direction of play that is clearly unreasonable under the circumstances."
So, it would appear that the referee in DJ's case, thought it was clearly reasonable for him to play backwards towards to the fairway, as that was likely his only option. In Rory's case, it likely made more sense for Rory to play left-handed back toward the fairway. So, the referee thought it was clearly unreasonable for Rory to be playing off toward another fairway, and he likely would not have done that had the cart path not been there.
This is a very tough call for a referee to make, as he has to take what the player is telling him and make a judgement call. The Rules above is the basis for how that judgement call is made though.
Justin Thomas vs. USGA
Justin Thomas has been very vocal so far about the new Rules. Unfortunately, he's about two years too late. He somehow missed the boat when the USGA and R&A released a set of proposed Rules and allowed the public to comment and give feedback for six months. That was more than two years ago, and even before that, the PGA Tour has had a seat at the table for the past seven years to give their input and look out for their players.
The latest issue with Justin Thomas came at the Honda Classic, where he damaged his 9-iron during his second round after playing a shot up against a tree. Under the new Rules, he could have used the club in its damaged state, or he could have had it repaired. However, he could not replace it with a different club. He was upset about this initially, but backed off after taking some time to think about it.
Then, another player, Adam Schenk, was penalized for his caddie standing behind him while he took his stance, during the second round. We've seen the controversy with this new Rule already, but it was an odd situation, considering Schenk was playing a bunker shot. Though, it was clear to see his caddie was positioned directly behind his line of play and Schenk did nothing to absolve himself of the penalty, such as backing out of his stance. Schenk was issued the penalty prior to his third round, but took it in stride, viewing the footage and admitting he had breached the Rule.
Even though he wasn't involved, Thomas did not take kindly to the penalty on Schenk. Thomas took to twitter to criticize the USGA, quote tweeting the PGA Tour Communications account's statement on the penalty to Schenk with "#growthegame @USGA." After receiving several replies, expanded on his tweet by sending another saying that the USGA needs to communicate with the PGA Tour players.
The USGA clapped back through their @USGA_PR account, tweeting that Thomas had cancelled meetings and informing him that they were around for the first five events, and reminded him that the PGA Tour has had that seat at the table for seven years.
Thomas later said to the media that he had never cancelled a meeting with the USGA, and that he's actually had discussions with USGA personnel. I would agree that there should be a great avenue of communication between the PGA Tour and the USGA. However, I think the USGA has taken a lot of blame for the PGA Tour and its players dropping the ball (no pun intended) on learning and before that, being actively involved in the Rules Modernization process. If the players had been as vocal two years ago, as they are now, then this transition would have been a lot smoother. Caddies standing behind players is not an everyday golfer problem, it was implemented primarily for the professional tours and high-level amateur golf. The PGA Tour definitely had input in that Rule being implemented. Dropping was explored from all sorts of heights, and eventually landed at knee-height with feedback from key stakeholders and golfers everywhere.
Something good did come out of this, as PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan sent out a memo to his players on Monday regarding the Rules changes. In the memo, Monahan puts his full support behind the changes, and reiterates that the PGA Tour was very involved in the process and "virtually all" of their suggestions were implemented. He went on to tell players that their feedback is welcome and that he'd like them to "use their voice constructively." This is a big step, and probably should have been stressed from the very beginning, but hopefully it opens some eyes on tour and we can all move forward to better the game.
Learn the Rules. Follow the Rules. Then we can focus on great and fun golf.
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