Phil Mickelson
Penalty Parade

The 16 most gut-wrenching Rules decisions of 2018

December 19, 2018

To paraphrase a law enforcement official from my youth (long story involving a blinking red light), “Ignorance of the law is no defense for breaking the law.” The same holds true for competitive golfers when it comes to The Rules of Golf. The looming modernization of the game’s good book, set to go into effect on Jan. 1, promises to make life easier for amateurs and professionals alike with simpler language and more practical applications. But in 2018, the old rules applied, and in more than a few instances, players unfamiliarity with, or mistaken understanding of, said regulations led to frustrating encounters with law enforcement rules officials. Here are the year’s most notable Rules decisions, revisited in chronological order.

Rhein Gibson, Bahamas Great Abacao Classic
During the second event of the Web.com Tour season in January, Gibson got a one-stroke penalty when his caddie, Brandon Davis, picked up his ball from a hazard on the final hole of the tournament rather than Gibson. The extra stroke dropped a none-too-happy Gibson from T-2 to solo third and caused him to throw his putter cover at Davis in disgust. Davis wasn’t Gibson’s full-time caddie, but the 32-year-old Australian made sure he wasn’t his part-time one any more either, firing Davis for the blunder. That night, Davis took to social media to offer an explanation for his actions, taping an eight-minute video in which he cited Decision 26-1/9 to try to exonerate him.

• • •

Thananuwat Srirasant

Lexi Thompson, Honda LPGA Thailand
Less than a year after her infamous rules snafu at the ANA Inspiration, the American LPGA star once again was talking to officials about an infraction that went unnoticed in the moment. During the final round at Siam Country Club in March, playing the 15th hole, Thompson watched her ball settle near an advertising sign, which she moved to play her next shot. At some LPGA events, such signs are considered moveable obstructions. Unfortunately for Thompson, at the Honda, they were deemed temporary immovable obstructions. After the round, rules officials told Thompson she needed to add two strokes to her score, forcing her to post a 68. At least this time, the penalty didn’t cost her a title, as Thompson finished four strokes back of winner Jessica Korda in a tie for second.

• • •

Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Akshay Bhatia, Junior Invitational at Sage Valley
It turned out to be a stellar season for the 16-year-old high-schooler from Wake Forest, N.C., who became a viral junior phenom and AJGA boys’ player of the year. But it began with a major sigh of relief after Bhatia’s mishap in South Carolina in April. During the first round of the prestigious junior event, having made two birdies in his first three holes, Bhatia reflexively grabbed his rangefinder to get a distance for his third shot on the par-5 fourth hole. The only thing was tournament rules prohibited any use of distance measuring devices. Despite a one-stroke penalty, Bhatia shot an opening 68. After building a four-stroke lead on the final day, he closed with a nervy 76, but still managed to win by one stroke and set his season down a successful path.

• • •

Nicole Broch Larsen, Volunteers of America LPGA Texas Classic
In 2017, the USGA and R&A decided players who made infractions that could only be seen by slow-motion, high-definition cameras, and not the naked eye, would not be penalized for what those cameras caught. That didn’t prevent the use of video replay entirely. When Broch Larsen, on the Saturday leader board at Old American Golf Club outside of Dallas during the rain-plagued event in April, was unsure if her ball moved after she grounded her club on her 13th hole of the second (and ultimately final) round, she mentioned it to an official. That officials said Broch Larsen did not cause the ball to move, but another LPGA official assigned to watch the broadcast contacted the Rules Committee with “added information” from seeing video footage. After the round was suspended for darkness, further review of the video and more discussion ensued. It then was determined that Broch Larsen more likely than not did cause the ball to move, so she was given a one-stroke penalty under Rule 18-2. (She did not, however, receive a penalty for playing her ball from a wrong place because she was following the direction of the on-site official.) That left her in a tie for the lead, but after she played the final four holes of her round on Sunday in one over, she eventually dropped into a tie for 12th.

• • •

Oregon High School golfers, Oregon State Championship
The black-and-white nature of the Rules make certain decisions feel grossly unfair. That was certainly the case when 12 high-school golfers competing in May at Quail Valley Golf Course in Banks, Ore., were disqualified after the first round because of bad information they had been given from a course volunteer. Players on teams from Rogue River, Columbia Christian and Grant Union were the first to reach the par-3 13th hole. They saw a blue tee, the official marker for the tournament, but it was 40 yards farther from the hole than the listed distance of 172 yards on their scorecards. The players asked an assistant coach for Rogue River, who then went to a person he thought was any official for clarification. The official told the golfers to play from a shorter red tee that was closer to the listed distance. The next three threesomes played the reds as well, two of the three saying they were specifically directed by the official to do so. Turns out the official was actually a volunteer, and when a different marshal arrived, the rest of the field was specifically told to make sure to play the blue tee on that hole. As for the first 12 players, the rules committee disqualified them, even after it came to light that they had been told to play the incorrect tee by a person they believed was a rules official (who several coaches and players say denied he told them to play from the red tees when asked after the round). “The issue they came down to, by the time we figured what had happened, the kids had already moved on to the next hole,” Pete Weber, Oregon School Activities Association executive director, told GolfDigest.com, “and the rules are clear in how that should be handled.” Perhaps, but it doesn’t make the decision any less incredulous.

• • •

Phil Mickelson, U.S. Open
Did the chaos that was Saturday at Shinnecock cause Lefty to temporarily lose his mind, or did his shocking decision to hit a moving golf ball on the 13th green cause the rest of the third round to be played on tilt? Either way, what Mickelson did was pretty nutty.

USGA officials seemed to have a handful of ways they could have adjudicated the matter, and for some, their choice was as disappointing as that day’s course set-up. Because Mickelson took a swing when he hit the ball, officials said he violated Rule 14-5 (playing a moving ball) rather than Rule 1-2 (purposely deflecting a ball). The former came with a two-stroke penalty—giving Mickelson a 10 on the hole—while the latter had the potential for a disqualification penalty that some clamored for. What about Rule 33-7, which gives the committee the ability to DQ a player for a serious breach of etiquette? It was what former USGA executive director David Fay recommended during the Fox broadcast. Officials, however, choice not to go to this extreme. Mickelson played the next day, finishing T-48, and his eventual apology for his momentary lapse of reason helped minimize permanent damage to his legacy.

• • •

Zach Johnson, Travelers Championship
Another week, another moving golf ball. Only this one came with far less controversy. During the second round at TPC River Highlands, Johnson just missed an 18-foot birdie try on the third hole (his 12th hole). He was set to tap it in, but just before he did the ball fell into the hole. Hooray, the Golf Gods giveth ZJ a birdie. Unfortunately, though, Johnson had taken more than the 10 seconds allowed under Rule 16-2, which states that after that set time a ball that hasn’t fallen in the hole is deemed to be at rest. Boo, the Golf Gods taketh ZJ’s birdie away, leaving him with a par.

• • •

Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Lee-Anne Pace, KPMG Women’s PGA Championship
We’ve all been where the 37-year-old veteran from South Africa was during the second round at Kemper Lakes Golf Club in June. Upset over a poor chip, Pace slammed the offending wedge into a nearby stake. Unfortunately, the hosel of the club was damaged in the process. Even more unfortunate was that Pace didn’t realize it was damaged. So when she went to use the club again a few holes later, she violated Rule 4-3b, which prohibits the use of a club damaged during a round other than during the normal course of play. The penalty was swift and severe: disqualification. Rather than finish her remaining four holes and discuss it further with PGA of America officials, Pace chose to stop playing. Not that it’s any solace for Pace, but under the new rules for 2019, you will be allowed to play a damaged club, regardless of how it was damaged.

• • •

Getty Images (2)

Joel Dahmen/Sung Kang, Quicken Loans National
There was no more heated exchange over an alleged rules violation than between Dahmen and Kang during the final round of the PGA Tour stop at TPC Potomac at Avenel Farms in July. Kang’s second shot found the hazard on the par-4 10th, but where it crossed the hazard caused a 25-minute conversation with rules officials, who allowed the twosome behind Dahmen and Kang to play through as they attempted to sort things out. Dahmen insisted the ball never did cross the hazard, while Kang said that it did and that he should be allowed to take a lateral drop farther up the hole. After the lengthy deliberation and with “no clear evidence to prove otherwise” according to the tour, rules officials let Kang drop the ball where he believed the ball crossed the hazard. Kang saved par on the hole and shot a six-under 64 to finish T-3, which earned him a spot in the Open Championship. Dahmen didn’t let the matter drop (pun intended) stating on Twitter that night: “Kang cheated. He took a bad drop from a hazard. I argued until I was blue. I lost.” Kang defended himself at the Open: “I followed the rule by the rules official, so I think I did the right thing.”

• • •

Phil Mickelson The Military Tribute at the Greenbrier
Less than a month after the Shinnecock affair, Lefty found himself again part of a rules spat. Only this one he called on himself. During the final round at The Greenbrier, Mickelson was playing his tee shot on the seventh hole when he first tapped down fescue in front of his ball with his foot. Quickly, he realized he might have committed a no-no, saying something on the tee even before hitting the shot. Sure enough, he was in violation of Rule 13-2 (improving line of play). The saving grace was that Mickelson started the day nine strokes off the lead, so his four-over 74, which dropped him to a T-65, wasn’t quite as painful as it could have been.

• • •

Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Lexi Thompson, Indy Women in Tech Championship
Thompson, the tournament’s defending champion, was coming off a month-long, self-imposed break to re-charge mentally. Her return had been uneventful until Saturday’s third round, when she teed off the 10th hole, her ball coming to rest in the adjacent sixth fairway. With the round being played under lift, clean and place conditions, Thompson picked up her ball and started to take her drop. An official noticed and clarified to her that the local rule only applied when the ball lands in the fairway on the hole you’re playing. Thompson was given a one-stroke penalty, but was saved another stroke for playing from the wrong spot thanks to the official. Impressively, Thompson didn’t let the mistake throw her; she still made par on the hole and shot a bogey-free 64 on the day.

• • •

Akshay Bhatia, U.S. Amateur
The 16-year-old junior sensation was testing himself against elite amateur competition, reaching match play at Pebble Beach in August and holding his own in Round 1 against Bradford Tilley. All square on the 14th hole, Bhatia hit his second shot on the green on the par 5. He and his caddie, Chris Darnell, proceeded to stop and use the bathroom. Bhatia walked up to the green, but Darnell, seeing what he thought was a USGA official in a golf cart, asked if he could get a ride to the green to maintain pace of play. Turns out it was a volunteer and not an official, and that according to the conditions of competition, players and caddies are prohibited from taking any form of transportation unless authorized. Bhatia was hit with an adjustment penalty, so instead of winning the hole with a birdie, he halved the hole with a par, and the match remained all square. Bhatia won the 15th hole, but lost the 17th hole with a bogey. Another Bhatia bogey on the 19th gave Tilley the match on the first extra hole.

• • •

Iowa men’s golf team/Gonzalo Leal, Marquette Invitational
We’re declaring this one from October the winner for the weirdest rules spat of the year (which is saying a lot). We’ll go slow for clarity’s sake. Leal, a Hawkeye freshman, hit his drive right on the 12th hole during the tournament’s second round at Erin Hills. Uncertain what happened to it, he hit a provisional ball. Leal found what he thought was his provisional ball after believing his original ball was in a water hazard, and decided to invoke the two-ball rule (Rule 3-3), playing the provisional ball and a ball dropped next to the hazard where he believed the original ball had gone. After hitting both balls on the green, Leal found three of his balls on the green. It turned out his playing partner, Northwestern’s Lucas Brecht, actually mistakenly hit Leal’s provisional ball, and that the ball Leal thought was his provisional was actually his original ball. (Brecht got a two-stroke penalty for hitting a wrong ball). Having played his original, Leal finished up the hole with that ball and thought he was in the clear. But since he invoked the two-ball rule, by playing the original ball Leal technically was playing the wrong ball and actually couldn’t go back to his original ball. And because he didn’t correct his mistake, he technically had no score for the hole and thus was disqualified. Worse, that DQ caused the entire Iowa team to be DQ’d from the event since they were only playing with four golfers that round due to their fifth player withdrawing due to injury. The DQ dropped the team to last place in the event, which caused them to fall from No. 14 in the Golfweek Sagarin Rankings to No. 49.

• • •

Jan Kruger/R&A

Gian-Marco Petrozzi, European Challenge Tour Q School, Stage 2
You probably haven’t heard of the 21-year-old Englishman, but you can feel for him after he seemed to be doing the courteous golf thing only to see it derail a chance to gain status on the European Challenge Tour. With ace on his eighth hole and five birdies on his last six holes, Petrozzi had shot a six-under 65 in the final round at Spain’s Las Colinas Golf & Country Club that appeared would get him in a playoff for an alternate spot to the final stage. But 20 minutes after his round he was given a two-stroke penalty when it came to light that on his 18th hole he walked through a bunker to pace a distance for his approach shot, then raked the bunker on the way back to his ball. It was deemed a violation of Rule 13-2 (the same one that tripped up Lefty at Greenbrier). With the extra strokes, Petrozzi was out of the playoff and wondering where he’d play now in 2019.

• • •

Doris Chen, LPGA Q-Series
The 25-year-old former U.S. Girls’ Junior champ and NCAA medalist was on the 17th hole in the seventh round of the LPGA’s new qualifying event in November at Pinehurst (N.C.) Resort when she was disqualified for playing a ball that had been out of bounds and moved back in bounds, a breach of Rule 15-3b. LPGA officials said that Chen was made aware she had played a wrong ball but did not correct the error before teeing off on her next hole. Making the matter murkier was that published reports stated it was Chen’s mother who moved the ball, something Chen’s caddie, Alex Valer, later stated as well. Asked at the time if she had spoken to her mother about whether she had moved the ball, Chen told Golf Digest: “She told me that she didn’t and that she doesn’t know. And if she did, it may be by accident and she wasn’t aware.”

• • •

David Cannon

Tiger Woods, Hero World Challenge
Not all rules controversies end with penalty shots and disqualifications. On the final hole of the second round at the tournament he hosts for his foundation in the Bahamas, Woods pumped his drive right of the fairway, the ball settling under a bush in a native area. From his knees, Woods attempted to punch his ball out to a more favorable lie. Video appeared to show the ball linger a little longer than normal on the clubface (a potential violation of Rule 14-1) and also caught the ball hitting the club twice (prohibited under Rule 14-4).

PGA Tour rules official Mark Russell conferred with Woods afterward, and Woods said that he did not feel in real time like he had pushed the shot rather than make a stroke, and that he did not feel as if he double hit the shot. Since neither violation could be discerned with the naked eye, no penalties were assessed under Decision 34-3/10 that limits the use of video evidence, although some wished Woods might have called a penalty on himself.

Introducing Golf Digest All Access, a new way to improve


WATCH: GOLF DIGEST VIDEOS