Players 2022: The rule Rory McIlroy found helpful during Saturday’s windy play (and cost Keegan Bradley)


David Cannon

PONTE VEDRA BEACH — Sustained winds of 15 miles an hour with gusts up to 40 made for an entertaining Saturday at the Players Championship. Entertaining if you weren’t playing in the conditions, that is.

Within minutes of the 12 noon restart at TPC Sawgrass, it was obviously that the wind would make club selection and distance control a very, very tricky proposition. But more worrisome for rules officials was how the winds might impact the greens and putting. Specifically, would the winds cause balls to move and create some potential rules questions.

To try to reduce the potential of this, the grounds crew only did a "light" mow of the putting greens early Saturday morning to smooth the surfaces, with no notable cutting occurring. Moreover, the Rules of Golf offer protections for players if their balls move because of natural forces, such as wind or water, so that they won't incur a penalty—provided they play the ball properly after it moves.

Case in point: Rory McIlroy was facing a 37-foot birdie putt on the 12th hole in his second round. He marked his ball, lifted it and put it back on its spot. He then walked around the putt to get a read when a gust of wind moved the ball backward roughly three feet.

Under Rule 13.1d, if a golfer has already marked his or her ball, lifted and replaced it, as McIlroy had, he or she must return the ball to where it was marked and play from that spot. So long as that happens, the player proceeds with no penalty. Kendall Dunovant, an assistant manager on the rules team at the USGA, says think of the ball as having “owned” that spot by virtue of being lifted and replaced.

This is a change in the Rules of Golf that went into place in 2017. The previous rule required golfers play the ball as it lies after it was moved by the natural force, no matter whether they had lifted/replaced the ball or not. Had McIlroy not lifted and replaced the ball, that’s also how he would have had to proceed; under Rule 13.1d, he would NOT have put the ball back to the original spot it was marked but instead needed to play it from the new spot—even if that spot was off the green—to stay penalty free. (After conferring with a rules official at the green, McIlroy got to move his ball back to the spot where he had marked it and two-putted for par.)

The lifting and replacing of the ball is actually a critical distinction, as Keegan Bradley learned later in the afternoon. Bradley was playing the 16th hole in his second round. He marked his ball on the green, but did not lift and replace it when a gust of wind moved the ball. Bradley moved the ball back to the spot of the mark, but because he had not lifted and replaced the ball, it did not actually "own" that spot and he was in violation of Rule 9.4a. Instead Bradley should have played the ball in its new spot. Bradley was thus assessed a two-shot penalty, making a double-bogey 7 on the hole.

The frustrating part for Bradley was that he thought he was actually applying the new rule correctly.

"Well, apparently the rule is — I thought as long as everyone in my group … and I guarantee most of the entire field thought the USGA changed the rule to simplify it: put your coin down, that’s where your ball is,” Bradley said after the round. “So put my coin down, the ball moved, a huge gust of wind came up.

“I looked at the guys in my group, and we all said, yep, the coin was down first, all good. Didn’t think about it again until [PGA Tour chief referee] Gary [Young] came up and spoke to me on 2, and [I'm] proud of the way I handled that because that was tough news, especially with some tough holes in front of me.”

Bradley finished with a one-under 71 in the second round. "I mean, this is probably my best round, one of my best rounds of my life, honestly. This is as tough as golf as you're ever going to play. This is a course you want to play under no conditions because of how tough the shots are, and to play in this wind, to play like that, that was really, really a special round."