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PGA Championship 2024: Explaining the controversial rules decision that made things messy at Valhalla

May 18, 2024
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Scott Taetsch/PGA of America

LOUISVILLE — Apparently, you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

While preferred lies have become a weekly routine on the PGA Tour, allowing lift, clean and place at major championships remains taboo. In was just two years ago where Daniel Berger received some flak for asking an Augusta National official if preferred lies would be in effect at the Masters. “He was kind of shocked that I even asked the question,” Berger recounted. “It was a lot of water, so it was worth the question.”

However, the one exception was the 2016 PGA Championship. The Wanamaker Trophy’s return to Baltusrol was met with bad weather, forcing officials to finish the third round and play the fourth round of the major on Sunday. The conditions were so messy that the PGA of America allowed the field to play under “lift, clean and place” rules in the fairway in the final round, which was believed to be the first time preferred lies had been given the greenlight in a major. To be fair, the move did not turn the PGA Championship into the Travelers Championship; Sunday was the lowest scoring average of the week, but mostly in line with Saturday’s numbers. Still, for a tournament that had long battled the stigma of being the black sheep of the majors, the preferred lies decision joined the list of oddities the PGA had produced.

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You can’t blame the PGA of America, then, for playing the ball down at Valhalla during the second round on Friday despite the fact that storms made an already-wet course wetter. And that will be the case again for Saturday’s third round.

Interestingly, the decision did not seem to have a major impact on scoring; in fact, the field’s average was lower in Round 2 than Round 1, which featured Xander Schauffele’s record-breaking 62. That didn’t stop the ESPN broadcast on Friday from questioning the decision to play the ball down, with analysts David Duval, Curtis Strange and Andy North reporting how many mud balls were affecting shots.

Not helping matters is the Valhalla topography. The entire front nine sits in a river basin, making it both susceptible to rainfall while not being particularly conducive to drainage. Though the second nine weaves through more undulated ground, a number of holes—like the 13th, 15th and 16th—reside at the bottom of hills and have the same issues as the front nine.

Traditionalists were happy that the PGA of America did not invoke preferred lies. The players, not so much. After his round Schauffele, who enters Saturday with a one-shot lead over Collin Morikawa, mentioned the difficulty in playing through the conditions.

“We're pro golfers, we're not professional mud readers,” Schauffele explained on Friday evening after his approach at the 18th went sideways. “I look up and my ball's just duck-hooking across the property. It was just a mud ball in the middle of the fairway. So that pisses me off, for sure.”

However, don’t expect the mud to remain an issue through the weekend. Yes, things remain messy, especially off the fairways where fans have been walking. But the next two days in Louisville are supposed to be hot and, fingers crossed, no more rain is expected. The worst of the conditions should have passed. Some players might not be pleased with playing through mud, but while Friday provided surreal scenes at Valhalla, preferred lies were not one of them.

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