Graham McDowell, the 2010 U.S. Open champion from Northern Ireland, learned a couple of lessons about leaves on the golf course that proved costly, suffering two-stroke penalties in two different BMW-sponsored events.
After finishing with what he thought was a six-under-par 66 in the opening round of the BMW Championship at Crooked Stick with an eagle-birdie finish, McDowell discovered after consulting with rules officials that he had to add two strokes because he grazed a leaf when addressing his ball in a bunker on the final hole.
As McDowell entered the bunker, he noticed there was a small branch behind his ball with a leaf attached. His caddie Ken Comboy warned him not to touch the branch, considered a loose impediment. “I thought he meant of course that I can’t remove that branch,” McDowell later told the media. “I just didn’t give it enough respect, and the second that I grazed it, we both knew perhaps we might be in trouble.” Sure enough, the rules officials confirmed he was correct.
“I’ve never seen that scenario before,’ MxcDowell admitted, but others had a month earlier in the PGA Championship at Kiawah’s Ocean Course when Carl Pettersson moved another leaf on his backswing in a lateral hazard on the first hole. That two-stroke penalty cost Petterrson second-place money.
Television commentator David Feherty was among those who questioned why the rule was even in the book, saying nothing had actually been done to give the player an advantage.
Maybe the USGA and R&A need to take a look when revisions are considered for 2016, allowing officials a little leeway if they do not believe the actions actually aided the player. This is already being done by a decision that merely changing an area protected by Rule 13-2 will not result in a penalty unless it creates a potential advantage for the player.
Examples of actions that would call for no penalty include accidentally knocking down several leaves from a tree in the area with a practice swing, but there are so many leaves remaining that the area of the swing has not been materially affected.
However, knocking down a single leaf would call for penalty if it was one of a few that might interfere with a player’s swing and distract him or if the area of the swing was materially affected.
The determination of whether a player has gained an advantage is made in reference to the situation immediately prior to his stroke. If there is reasonable possibility of an advantage, the player is in breach of the rule.
McDowell was involved in another rules situation involving leaves on the final hole during the first round of the European Tour’s PGA Championship at Wentworth. His drive came to rest on a bed of leaves. Going to identify it and still 10 feet away, he was deemed to have made his ball move. He didn’t even realize it until it was called in by one of the armchair referees. After a video review, he was penalized one stroke because the ball moved and another stroke because he had not replaced it.
Something to remember when there are a lot of leaves in a bunker is that a player can remove as many of them as necessary to see a part of the ball. A penalty for touching a loose impediment in a hazard before making his stroke would still apply if he touches some of the leaves on his backswing. The key here is that a stroke does not begin until after the completion of a player’s backswing.
If fallen leaves in a bunker create an abnormal problem, a committee is allowed to make a local rule, declaring accumulations of leaves in bunkers to be ground under repair. A player can drop at the nearest point of relief, not nearer the hole, in the bunker. If the player opted to drop outside the bunker, he would add a penalty stroke. A player may substitute another ball without penalty if he can not find it in the leaves and it is known or virtually certain the ball did go into the area marked as ground under repair.