PGA Championship

Valhalla Golf Club

WGC-Dell Match Play

Bizarre rules issue allows Bryson DeChambeau to get free relief where Thomas Pieters did not

March 23, 2022

Kevin C. Cox

The vagaries of match play have nothing on the vagaries of the Rules of Golf.

Early during Wednesday’s action of the WGC-Dell Match Play, Thomas Pieters played his second shot from beside the green of the drivable par-4 13th at Austin Country Club in his match with Tom Hoge. The ball hit and ran through the putting surface, seemingly en route to water. However, it did not reach the penalty area, instead collecting on top of a sprinkler head resting just below the surface of the green. A lucky break, it seemed. Only it wasn't.

As it turned out, the sprinkler head was technically inside the penalty line given the way the grass marked with red paint was resting against the sprinkler’s plastic top. That meant instead of the normal free relief given for a ball resting on a sprinkler head, Pieters had to play the ball as it lies or take a drop that would include a penalty stroke.

Pieters, a fine young player but one known to run hot, was indignant on the ruling. Needing to hole the birdie attempt to tie the hole, the six-time DP World Tour winner abruptly walked up and casually chipped his ball, the shot coming nowhere near the hole. Pieters then attempted (and missed) kicking the ball in the water before knocking it in with his wedge and walking to the 14th tee in frustration.

Fast forward later in the day when Bryson DeChambeau found himself in the same situation—specifically, the same spot—as Pieters at the 13th. But unlike Pieters, DeChambeau was granted relief from the sprinkler in his match against Richard Bland. DeChambeau was able to save par and tie the hole with Bland.

So, what gives?

According to chief referee Gary Young, the sprinkler head was never intended to be inside the hazard line. “When we heard about the original ruling, the way the penalty area is marked, the line … and as you look at them out on the golf course, the line kind of goes around each sprinkler head, keeping it in the general area of the golf course, not in the penalty area. That way a player is always going to get relief,” Young said. “When the golf course was marked, the line got a little bit closer. Obviously, there's a lot of wind when you're making these golf courses. The line got a little too close to [the sprinkler].”

Young said that the official with Pieters' match made the ruling based on what he was looking at with the red paint touching the sprinkler and the ball. But given that was not the intent of how the course was set-up, the rules committee decided it would change where the red line was painted on the hole.

“We talked about it as a committee and felt very firmly, two wrongs don't make a right," Young said. "We've got to correct this because clearly it should be outside.”

However, before the change could be made, DeChambeau wound up in the same spot.

“As they were down, on their way down there with some paint to correct the line, Bryson's situation came up,” Young said. “[Rules official Craig Winter] called me on the phone and asked … he said, ‘I've got the same situation.’ Now that I know the intention was to have it outside the penalty area, are you comfortable with me ruling on it that way, and I said, ‘yes, I want you to rule on it that way because we're about to change the marking on it.’

“There was nothing we could do to fix the Thomas Pieters situation. It was over with. But just to get it right was important."

Because this is match play and the Pieters-Hoge match has no bearing on the DeChambeau-Bland match (they are not in the same round-robin group), the mistake was fixed mid-competition. Shortly after DeChambeau-Bland finished the 13th, Winter repainted the line to signify the sprinkler head in question was properly marked.

Certainly a bizarre situation, even by the often ridiculous standards of the Rules of Golf. Conversely, it is a situation made more palatable by the fact that it did not ultimately hurt Pieters, as he won his match against Hoge, 2 and 1.

“I tried to catch up with [Pieters],” Young said. “He had already left the property. I've actually sent him a text message that I want to speak to him and explain it, so I'm going to do that.”