Some Open and shut Rules cases

It’s been a good first two rounds for Rules of Golf aficionados, with a number of interesting situations at Pebble Beach. Good thing it’s the U.S. Open—when there’s a question, the people who make and interpret the Rules are right there to answer it.

Not that the answers are always easy, even for the USGA. At one point Friday afternoon, senior director of Rules and competitions Mike Davis couldn’t attend to one situation right away because he was involved with watching video on another situation. When he did attend to the second one—and consulted video on that one—the original ruling was reversed.

The stickiest situation involved Shaun Micheel and Graeme McDowell, first-round co-leader and second-round leader, who were playing together. It rather uncomfortably pitted the word of one against the word of the other, but since both can truly be called good guys it was undoubtedly handled without acrimony.

It involved a pitch shot from long grass by Micheel on the first hole (their 10th of the day). As soon as McDowell saw it, he turned to his caddie and mouthed, “Double hit.” After completion of the hole, McDowell told Micheel what he had seen, but Micheel, said he didn’t feel double contact.

A double-hit would call for a one-stroke penalty. USGA officials questioned Micheel after the round and accepted his explanation. His score was posted without the penalty pending review of the video in the NBC truck, which was delayed while Davis reviewed a situation involving Paul Casey (see below).

When Micheel and Davis watched the slow-motion replay of the shot, Micheel clearly saw that the ball changed direction during flight, indicating that it was hit a second time, and the penalty was assessed, giving him a 77 on the round. There was no question of Micheel’s integrity. It was an awkward shot from long fescue, and he undoubtedly did not feel or hear the second contact, which occurred while his club was still going through the grass.

Casey was more fortunate in that he survived his video review without a penalty. That one arose when he tapped down his divot while his pitch shot to the devilish 14th green came up short and was taking a circuitous route rolling back toward his feet. A player is not allowed to improve his lie or the area of his swing by tapping down a divot—and that includes the area of an upcoming stroke.

However, this is an instance where the intent of a player is a factor. If Casey purposely tapped down the divot because he knew the ball was rolling back to that spot, he would be penalized two strokes. From Casey’s body language on the video of the incident, it appeared that his move was instinctual, and that was confirmed by talking to Casey. His triple bogey eight on the hole stood—and he remained at 142 through 36 holes, just three strokes off the lead.

Phil Mickelson, tied for second at 141 through 36 holes, also emerged unscathed from a conference with a Rules official, this one in the first round. Playing out of a very long fairway bunker on the fourth hole, he hit a shot that landed in that same bunker, well ahead of him. He started to smooth his footprints, but stopped himself because he was afraid that might have been a violation because the ball was still in the same bunker.

Mickelson immediately consulted with the Rules official walking with his group, and was told that there was no violation. The Rules state that a player or his caddie may smooth the sand if the ball remains in the same bunker as long as it doesn’t assist his subsequent play of the hole. Any other touching of the sand, such as kicking the sand in frustration, would draw a two-stroke penalty for testing the condition of the hazard. Mickelson was clearly starting to smooth the sand with his foot, not kicking at it.

In the first round, Ryan Moore was able to use the Rules to his advantage. Hitting way too much club, his tee shot on the par-three 17th sailed long and right, bounding across the 18th tee and inside the hazard line adjacent to the sea wall separating land from ocean. The lie was playable, but his follow-through would have been interfered with by a rail fence. The fence is an immovable obstruction, but since his ball was in the hazard, Moore was not entitled to relief from it.

Ah, but also in his way was a signpost indicating the 18th tee—a special U.S. Open signpost installed for the championship by the USGA. This is a temporary immovable obstruction, and as such is covered by a special Local Rule covered in the appendix of the Rules of Golf. For a temporary obstruction, the player does get relief if his ball is in the hazard. What’s more, he gets relief not only for interference with his stance or swing but also from interference with his line of play.

There are a couple of provisos. First, the player must be able to legitimately get the club on the ball and make a shot. This was met. Second, for a ball inside the hazard, the player must drop the ball inside the hazard.

The nearest point of relief from interference by the temporary signpost was determined, and Moore was able to drop within one club-length of that point. The location of the rail fence was entirely ignored in this procedure. If relief from the temporary obstruction had left Moore still behind the rail fence, that would have been too bad. As it turned out, however, it got him away from the rail fence. He was able to shoot at the green with his next stroke and, while he missed the green with that shot he did end up getting up and down for a bogey—better than his likely score if he didn’t get relief from the signpost.

Yes, sometimes the Rules can be your friend. Other times, well, Shaun Micheel can tell you about that.

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