Rickie Fowler
The Year In Review

The 21 (yes, 21!) most painful rules incidents of 2019

December 19, 2019

Between Phil Mickelson hitting a ball in motion, Joel Dahmen calling out the motivation of Sung Kang and Tiger Woods’ non-double hit at the Hero World Challenge, 2018 was a banner year for rules controversies. Surely, with the new, simplified Rules of Golf, 2019 had no chance at providing as much rules drama as the season prior. No chance.


Not only did 2019 live up to the hype, it may have outdone 2018 in the rules-issue department. During the fall PGA Tour season alone, it felt like there was at least one controversy per week, each one featuring more penalty strokes than the last. Here are the most unusual rules incidents from another ridiculous season of run-ins with the law, in chronological order.

• • •

Haotong Li, Omega Dubai Desert Classic

Twenty-six days after the modernized Rules of Golf were implemented, China’s Haotong Li ran afoul of one of the new provisions at the worst possible time. On the final hole of the European Tour’s Omega Dubai Desert Classic in late January, Li holed a short birdie putt that secured a T-3 finish. Or so he thought. After the round, it was determined that Li violated rule 10.2(b)4, which prohibits caddies from standing behind a golfer once the player has begun to address their ball in preparation of taking a stroke:

Had Li simply stepped away after his caddie walked off and retaken his stance, he would have been in the clear. Instead, he was hit with a two-stroke penalty, causing him to fall to T-12, a difference of €100,000. Fans and fellow players criticized the ruling, believing Li was not yet in his stance. Even European Tour CEO Keith Pelley weighed in, calling it “grossly unfair” and stating that Li had “no malice or intent” and was not trying to gain an advantage. Unfortunately for the 24-year-old, the ruling stood.

• • •

Denny McCarthy, Waste Management Phoenix Open

Less than a week after the Li ruling, Denny McCarthy appeared to commit the same infraction at the Waste Management Phoenix Open, though his did not occur on the putting green. During his second round, McCarthy found the water with his second shot at the par-5 15th at TPC Scottsdale, then took his drop. As he lined up his fourth shot, Golf Channel cameras captured video of McCarthy’s caddie standing directly behind him as he took a few practice swings. After review, he was hit with a two-stroke penalty following the round, changing his second-round 65 from a 67. This story, though, has a happy ending, as the tour wound up rescinding the penalty the following day:

As Slugger White explained, tour officials reviewed the video countless times and had the USGA and R&A weigh in to make sure the interpretation of the rule was proper. It also helped a little that Justin Thomas tweeted that the penalty was “ridiculous” and “mind-blowing,” which caused a number of other tour pros to pile on. OK, so maybe that helped a lot.

• • •

Rickie Fowler, WGC-Mexico Championship

Almost a month after his victory at the Waste Management Phoenix Open, Rickie Fowler returned to action at the WGC-Mexico Championship, where he could not have gotten off to a worse start. After hitting his opening drive of the tournament in the rough, Fowler shanked his approach shot so badly that he had to take a drop and re-hit. That’s when he ... GASP ... dropped from shoulder instead of knee height, per the new rule:

The only thing worse than this rule was this guy’s spelling of "Ricky," am I right? Fowler’s instinctual shoulder-height drop earned him a one-stroke penalty. When his ball finally found the cup, he was in for a triple-bogey 7. The following week at the Honda Classic, Fowler trolled the new rule by dropping his ball as if he were ..... eh, we’ll let your imagination do the rest:

• • •

Amy Olson and Ariya Jutanugarn, Honda LPGA Thailand

Perhaps the most unusual rules incident of the entire year involved two players, and it didn’t even result in a penalty. At the Honda LPGA Thailand in February, Ariya Jutanugarn chipped her third shot to a few feet of the hole on the par-5 18th, setting up a short birdie putt. As Jutanugarn went to go mark it, one of her playing partners, Amy Olson, facing a similar chip, was preparing to play her shot, which caused Jutanugarn to stop in her tracks and not mark her ball. Olson’s chip wound up hitting Jutanugarn’s ball, a classic case of “backstopping,” which has become one of golf’s biggest hot-button issues. Twitter user Duncan French captured video of the situation, which Olson and Jutanugarn made look much worse when they fist-bumped as they walked to the green:

As expected, the chuckle/fist-bump combo caused quite a stir on social media, many agreeing with French’s sentiment that this was a bit too coincidental. Still, the players vigorously defended themselves, saying there was no purposeful intend to side-step the rules, and the LPGA assessed no penalty.

• • •

Alex Cejka, Honda Classic

As if February wasn’t already declared the month of new rules infractions, Alex Cejka ended the month in unique fashion at the Honda Classic. Cejka became the first player to be disqualified for a new rule that limited the use of green-reading books. It came to the committee’s attention that he was using an old version of the book for PGA National when one of Cejka’s playing partners, Cameron Tringale, noticed it as Cejka lined up a putt on the 10th green in the opening round. Cejka was informed of the infraction on the 13th hole and DQ’d a hole later. What made this situation particularly strange was that PGA National’s greens had been re-done from a year ago, meaning Cejka got disqualified for using an old book that didn’t even have the correct material in it.

• • •

Adam Schenk, Honda Classic

Two days after Cejka’s DQ, Adam Schenk joined the new rules infractions club, though he only incurred a two-stroke penalty for his breach. On Saturday, while in contention, Schenk became the latest player to be penalized for having his caddie line him up. The infraction actually occurred in Friday’s second round at the par-3 17th, where Schenk took his stance in a bunker while his caddie stood behind him, then failed to step away and retake his stance. Like Li and McCarthy’s situations, Schenk did not intend to gain any advantage, but the penalty stood. This one had a bit of a mysterious aura surrounding it, as officials never specified how they were alerted to Schenk’s breach, then handed out the penalty 40 minutes before his third-round tee time.

• • •

David Cannon

Harold Varner III, The Players Championship

Harold Varner III’s infraction stood out for a few reasons: A.) It wasn’t a breach of one of the new rules, and B.) His was equipment-related. As is the case with many of the Rules of Golf, the language is (still) so confusing that I can recall being in the media center at the Players Championship and re-reading it at least 10 times. You see, what had happened was, Varner began his round on the par-4 10th at TPC Sawgrass, and he did so without a driver, as his cracked on the range prior to the round. By rule, Varner was allowed to replace the driver either with a completely new one or a new driver head, the only caveat being that he couldn’t assemble the club on the course. So Varner left the shaft back at the tee hoping his agent replace the cracked driver head with a new driver head off the course. Accidentally, the walking scorer in Varner’s group mistakenly brought the shaft out on to the course, and when Varner’s agent arrived with the new driver head, they assembled the club on the course in violation of Rule 4.1b. Varner was assessed a two-stroke penalty, changing his third-round 72 to a 74. Don’t worry, my head is spinning too.

• • •

Sergio Garcia and Matt Kuchar, WGC-Match Play

Just as Matt Kuchar and Sergio Garcia were beginning to fade from the news cycle after each committing a series of misdeeds, they were immediately thrust back into controversy (together!) at the WGC-Dell Match Play in March. It was almost as if the golf content gods were smiling down upon us. Garcia and Kuchar faced off in a quarterfinal match at Austin Country Club, where Kuchar led 1 up through six holes. At the par-3 seventh green, Garcia missed a seven-foot par putt that would have won him the hole and squared the match. Rather than wait for Kuchar to say “that’s good,” Garcia quickly walked up to his two-inch tap in and struck it with the back of his putter. Incredibly, the putt lipped out before Kuchar could concede it:

By rule, the stroke counted, meaning Garcia lost the hole and was now 2 down. While Kuchar said afterward he was going to give Garcia the putt, he never actually said it was good, and you’re not allowed to retroactively give a putt. As you can imagine, Sergio didn’t handle it well:

The drama continued in the 10th fairway, where NBC cameras captured Garcia and Kuchar having a tense back and forth. Garcia did admit he was wrong to Jim (Bones) Mackay during the match, which he eventually lost, 2 up. As if this all weren’t cringeworthy enough, Garcia and Kuchar released a joint video in response to the whole fiasco, which became a huge debate on Twitter about who was in the wrong (they both were). To this day I have not watched that video for fear of secondhand awkwardness.

• • •

David Lipsky, PGA Championship

There are unfair rulings, and then there’s what happened to David Lipsky at the PGA Championship. Prior to his second round at Bethpage Black, Lipsky was given a two-stroke penalty for showing up late to his pairing, which is a fair ruling if his partners were waiting around for minutes and he was slowing up the rest of the field. But it got really strange when a release from the PGA of America said that Lipsky was “walking toward the tee with his putter and a ball but was not within the area defined as the starting point.” Seriously, he was walking toward the tee and he still got penalized? It gets worse. According to Henrik Stenson, who Lipsky was paired with that day, Lipsky had a foot on the tee box when he received the penalty. For shame.

• • •

Andrea Lee, U.S. Women’s Open

Speaking of unfair rulings, Stanford’s Andrea Lee would like a word. At the U.S. Women’s Open in late May, Lee, an amateur at the time, was hit with a slow-play penalty late in her third round. While it was only one stroke and it changed a 78 to a 79, it was odd given the fact that six-hour rounds were the norm throughout the week at the Country Club of Charleston. That same day, the final two groups, which consisted of five professionals and one amateur, each took three hours to play the front nine.

• • •

Darren Clarke, U.S. Senior Open

As far as debuts go, Darren Clarke’s was going quite well at the U.S. Senior Open this past June. The Northern Irishman, a Senior Open rookie, made the turn in one under at Notre Dame’s Warren Course, but he didn’t carry the front-nine momentum with him to the 10th tee, where he pulled his drive down the left side of the hole. Clarke was able to find the ball in some fescue near the woods, and began to have a discussion with a rules official. During their chat, Clarke’s caddie decided to remove a birdhouse that appeared to be in Clarke’s line. While the birdhouse is a movable object, by rule it is an immovable obstruction because it is a permanent fixture on the golf course. Clarke was given a two-stroke penalty, which was particularly painful given he wasn’t notified of the penalty until later in his round. His bogey was changed to a triple, and he finished with a three-over 73.

• • •

Brendan Steele, Wyndham Championship

The most rare ruling on our list occurred at the Wyndham Championship, where Brendan Steele was attempting to vault up the FedEx Cup standings to try to advance to the FedEx Cup Playoffs. He did himself no favors when, during his second round, Steele used an alignment stick, which you are allowed to carry during competition but you are not allowed to use. After Steele had hit an approach shot on the 13th hole, he asked his caddie how his alignment was, and the caddie pulled out the stick to check it. Steele had a feeling it was a problem, so he consulted a rules official, who confirmed he’d be given a two-stroke penalty. Caddies, man. Can’t win with ‘em, can’t win without ‘em.

• • •

Rory McIlroy, The Northern Trust

Late in his second round of the first FedEx Cup playoff event, Rory McIlroy found the front right bunker at Liberty National’s signature hole, the par-3 14th. When he arrived at his ball, McIlroy went to remove what he thought was a rock leaning up against his ball, which you are allowed to do under the new rules. Turns out, that “rock” was actually a clump of sand, which caused him to immediately pull his hand away and call over a rules official. But the damage was already done, and it was determined McIlroy had touched the sand behind his ball, which is a two-stroke penalty:

McIlroy pleaded his case to no avail, at least until after the round, when his penalty was reversed. The PGA Tour phoned the USGA, who asked McIlroy if he was comfortable saying that he did not improve his lie. McIlroy said that he was, and common sense prevailed.

• • •

Jesper Parnevik, SAS Championship

Thought birdhouses, shoulder-height drops and non-existent stones were as bizarre as it could get for the Rules of Golf? Think again. The most bizarre ruling of this whole list came at the PGA Tour Champions’ SAS Championship, where Jesper Parnevik was penalized for NOT taking a mulligan. Yes, really. On a short bogey putt, Parnevik’s ball lipped around the hole and came back and hit him in the foot. He then tapped it in for a double bogey, which later became a triple when officials informed him that he was entitled to replay the bogey putt. As Rule 11.1b, Exception 2 states, when a ball played from the putting green accidentally hits any person, animal or movable obstruction (including another ball in motion), the stroke does not count and the original ball must be replaced on its original spot. Parnevik failed to do this, which would have given him a second chance to save bogey, instead of walking off with a triple. Paul Casey almost found himself in a similar situation a month earlier at the Porsche European Open, when he holed an eight-foot putt that ran over a bug on its way to the hole. Had Casey “knowingly” hit the bug, he would have had to replay the shot, but because he didn’t “knowingly” hit it, he was in the clear. Bizarro world stuff, folks!

• • •

Lee Ann Walker, Senior LPGA Championship

Apparently Lee Ann Walker either didn’t get the memo about the new rules or she didn’t watch much golf in 2019. Those are the only two explanations for what happened to her at the Senior LPGA. Walker was assessed 58—yes, 58!!—penalty strokes after it was discovered she had violated our old friend Rule 10.2b, the one that prohibits your caddie from lining a player up. Walker committed this infraction numerous times during the first round, and did not become aware of it until the fifth hole of her second round, when another caddie pointed it out. By that point she had done it enough to be assessed 42 penalty strokes for her first round (two for each infraction), which changed her first round 85 to a 127. She was assessed 16 more penalty strokes in her second round, which changed her 74 to a 90. After 36 holes, she was 73 over, 39 strokes behind the next-worst score. After the entire ordeal, Walker admitted she knew some of the new rules, but not Rule 10.2b.

• • •

Ross Kinnaird

Marcel Siem, Open de France

Incredibly, in a three-day span, golf saw a player get penalized 58 strokes, then a player get penalized for NOT taking a mulligan and finally, a player get DQ’d for playing preferred lies when preferred lies were not in place. That player was Marcel Siem, who took the opportunity to lift, clean and place his ball five times over his first nine holes at the European Tour’s Open de France. Because preferred lies were not in place, Siem was given a two-shot penalty for all five infractions, meaning he was getting 10 strokes added to his score. That was one too many for Siem, who decided to disqualify himself instead.

• • •

Christina Kim, LPGA Q-School

As Christina Kim came to find out this past fall, even those who enforce the rules are not immune to criticism. During the sixth round of the LPGA Q-Series, one of Kim’s playing partners, Dewi Weber, prepared to play her tee shot on the par-3 17th. While that was happening, the third member of the group, Kendall Dye, gestured to Weber’s caddie to confirm what club Weber was going to hit. This is a violation of Rule 10-2, which prohibits players from soliciting advice. The most brutal part of the penalty is that it’s a two-stroke penalty for both Dye and Weber, even though Weber was unaware of what happened. Kim saw the interaction but chose not to say anything until after the round, which irked both Dye and Weber. Kim continued to defend her actions on social media, which, as we know, is a very level-headed place. Just kidding. Kim spent the next 48 hours mired in Twitter drama, which may have been the biggest penalty of the entire situation.

• • •

Luis Gagne, Korn Ferry Tour Q School

After opening with a one-under 70 at the second stage of Korn Ferry Tour Q School, Luis Gagne was in good shape. Until he wasn’t. Gagne, who tied for low amateur at the 2018 U.S. Open at Shinnecock, left the course without signing his scorecard, which is an automatic DQ. At the time, he was tied for 41st, just two shots outside the top 20, which earns players a spot in Q School Final Stage. There, the top 40 and ties receive some stats on the Korn Ferry Tour. Gagne never even had the chance. Brutal.

• • •

Team USA, Spirit International Amateur Golf Championship

If you couldn’t tell, rules controversies were easier to come by than Jameis Winston interceptions this fall. OK, maybe that’s a slight exaggeration, but not even the Spirit International Amateur Golf Championship—a biennial, 54-hole four-ball competition comprised of 19 countries represented by teams of four (two men and two women)—was snafu-free. On the third hole, American team member Kaitlyn Pipp made a birdie, but when the team turned its scorecard, it reflected that another member, Emilia Migliaccio, made the birdie. This was a violation of Rule 23.2b, which states that each score on the scorecard must be clearly identified as the score of the individual partner who made it. If that is not done, the team is DQ’d. Just like that, the Americans were done before they could even get started. Kind of like the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this season.

• • •

Eddie Pepperell, Turkish Airlines Open

Eddie P went full “Tin Cup.” Never go full “Tin Cup.”

• • •

Russell Henley, Mayakoba Golf Classic

Can you be penalized for being too good of a person? As Russell Henley found out at the Mayakoba Golf Classic, yes, you absolutely can. After shooting a two-under 69 in the second round, Henley reached into his bag to grab a few golf balls to sign for fans. As he sorted through the balls, it came to Henley’s attention that he had accidentally used a ball other than his usual Titleist ProV1x during the round, which is a violation of the PGA Tour’s One Ball Rule. The One Ball Rule is not a part of the official Rules of Golf, but it is one that’s adopted for professional golf tournaments as well as high-level amateur events. It requires golfers play the same model of golf ball they began the day with throughout the round. As punishment, Henley was hit with eight penalty strokes, 50 less than Lee Anne Walker but still a painful amount for a player who was in semi-contention that week. Let’s hope Henley has some good karma coming his way in 2020.

• • •

Patrick Reed, Hero World Challenge

Considering how fresh this still is in our minds, I’m not sure it needs much explaining. For those who missed it, here’s the video of Stanley Yelnats from the hit 2003 movie "Holes" Reed taking practice swings in a waste bunker:

Reed was given a two-stroke penalty for improving the line of play for his shot. Those two strokes are the same margin that he lost the tournament by. He remains adamant that he was not trying to gain an advantage, and that the camera angle was to blame. All we know is this: 2020 has a tough act to follow when it comes to rules imbroglios.