The final round of the British Open proved to be something of a rules clinic for those watching the ESPN broadcast. As Adam Scott, Ernie Els, Graeme McDowell, and Tiger Woods plodded through the wind, treacherous bunkers, and thick gorse, various rules issues surfaced. However, if you were looking for clarification from the ESPN commentators, you’d have been disappointed.
Lesson 1: Unplayable Balls in Bunkers
Any chance Woods had to make a move Sunday disappeared on the 6th hole, when his approach shot came up short in the front left bunker. His ball nestled in a plugged lie only a couple of feet from the steep, stacked-turf face of the bunker. It appeared to observers that playing towards the hole was not an option, and Woods considered playing sidewise out of the bunker, a common tactic at Royal Lytham which features 205 bunkers. Even that shot was dicey given the proximity of the side wall.
But Tiger was not willing to admit defeat, and attempted a Herculean blast over the steep face of the bunker. It was a poor decision. The ball careened off the face of the bunker, nearly hit Woods (which would have cost him a penalty stroke), and came to rest in the bunker about a foot from the side wall – leaving another impossible shot. From a bizarre, crouching stance outside the bunker, Woods flailed at the ball and was lucky to advance it over the face and onto the front of the green. He emerged limping, but the real damage was to his prospects for winning his 15th major championship, which evaporated with his three-putt for a triple bogey 7.
Woods had another option. He could have declared his ball unplayable, and dropped a ball in a better position in the bunker under Rule 28. This would have cost him a penalty stroke, but would have allowed him to play a normal bunker shot and possibly save a bogey (as did McDowell later from a similar lie) or at worst take a double bogey. This option is rarely invoked, but can make sense in the diabolical pot bunkers at Royal Lytham.
The ESPN commentator incorrectly stated that Woods could have dropped the ball behind the bunker on a line demarcated by the ball and the hole. However, the rule provides that, when a ball lies in a bunker, it must be dropped in the bunker unless the player chooses to proceed under the stroke-and-distance rule and return to the spot from which the ball was last played (in this case over 200 yards down the fairway). An R&A rules official later clarified Woods’ options.
Woods’ error in judgment was reminiscent of Phil Mickelson’s decision to forgo the unplayable ball option and attempt to play out of thick brush on the 4th hole during the final round of this year’s Masters championship. Like Woods, he failed to advance the ball, and took a triple bogey which thwarted his rally. There is, perhaps, a lesson to be learned here: sometimes it is best to admit to being stymied and take the medicine of a penalty stroke rather than attempt a virtually impossible shot and worsen your situation. (Such thinking is probably inimical to the mindset of pros like Tiger and Phil.)
Shortly after Woods’ fiasco, McDowell found himself in an almost identical position in the same bunker. He made a more sensible decision, playing a shot towards the rear of the bunker that allowed him clearance to play a fine fourth shot and save bogey. However, a safer alternative would have been to declare the ball unplayable and drop in the desired location, avoiding the possibility of a flubbed positional shot or a poor lie. McDowell hit a number of bunkers Sunday, which contributed to his disappointing 75 and his inability to put pressure on his playing partner Adam Scott.
Lesson 2: Adam Scott’s Mysterious Rolling Ball
Adam Scott escaped a penalty stroke on the 7th hole when a rules official determined that he had not caused his ball to move. His second shot on the par-5 hole came to rest in the rough on a slope to the left of the green. Scott took a couple of practice swings near his ball, then walked up to the green to survey his line. As he was approaching his ball, it suddenly rolled down the slope.
Rule 18-2a imposes a 1-stroke penalty if the player causes his ball to move. This is a factual question to be resolved by considering all the circumstances. Interestingly, Rules Decision 18-2a/30 involved a similar situation. A player took several practice swings about a foot from his ball which was lying in light rough, contacting the ground with his club. He then took his stance — but did not ground the club — and the ball moved. It was ruled that the practice swings caused the ball to move, and the player was penalized.
After questioning Scott about the sequence of events, the official apparently determined that, given the considerable (11 seconds according to ESPN) lapse in time between the practice swings and the movement of the ball, the movement was caused by something other than the practice swings. (It was a fairly windy day, so it’s possible that wind and gravity caused the movement.) However, a senior R&A official participating in the ESPN broadcast was skeptical of the ruling, opining that even with the lapse in time the most reasonable inference was that the movement was attributable to the practice swings.
ESPN again muddied the analysis by discussing Rule 18-2b, which provides that, when the ball moves after the player has addressed it, the player is deemed to have caused the ball to move and is penalized. This rule created controversy when balls moved on fast, sloping putting greens on windy days. The ESPN commentators proceeded to discuss the new exception to Rule 18-2b, which provides that the penalty does not apply if it is “known or virtually certain” that the player did not cause the ball to move. However, this rule was inapplicable to Scott’s situation because he never addressed the ball. The pertinent rule is 18-2a. Perhaps ESPN should hire a rules consultant for its telecasts.
As it turned out, even if Scott got a break on the ruling, it wasn’t enough to offset his tragic meltdown on the final four holes, which allowed Els to snatch the claret jug from his grasp.
Lesson 3: Watch Those TV Towers, Ernie
As Ernie Els prepared to hit his approach shot from the left rough on the 15th hole, a rules official consulted him about his intended line of play. The concern was whether two television towers on the left side of the hole might come into play. Els seemed unconcerned, and proceeded to play his shot.
Generally, a player is entitled to relief from an immovable obstruction (an artificial object or structure) only if it interferes with his stance or swing. For example, if your tee shot lands near a sprinkler control box that impedes your line of play but does not interfere with your stance or swing, no relief is available.
However, a local rule provides line of play relief from “temporary immovable obstructions” such as grandstands or television towers. (This is why players frequently receive favorable relief when their shots stray into or near grandstands.) Thus, had the official determined that the television towers were in Els’ line of play, he would have been entitled to drop his ball within one club length of the nearest point of relief, even if that would have afforded a better lie in the fairway.
Els did just fine without any relief. More importantly, unlike Woods, McDowell, and Scott, he steered clear of the pot bunkers, and has the claret jug and the title “Champion Golfer of the Year” to show for it.
Lesson 4: Stroke-and-Distance From the Gorse
Given the multidude of spectators, officials, and media, it is rare for a pro golfer to lose a ball during a competition. However, few courses present such formidable rough and tall gorse as links courses like Royal Lytham, made even more harrowing this year due to unseasonable rainy weather in recent weeks.
On the 11th hole Sunday, Graeme McDowell hit an uncustomary wayward tee shot into a thick patch of knee-high gorse, and neither he, his caddie, nor any of the eager spectators participating in the search were able to find his ball within the alloted five minutes. He was forced to return to the spot in the fairway from which he played his last shot — and take a penlty stroke — under the stroke-and-distance rule imposed by Rule 27 for lost balls.
Had McDowell found his ball, it is unlikely he could have played it from the thick gorse, and could have proceeded under the unplayable ball rule. However, it is unlikely that two of the options afforded by Rule 28 (dropping within two clublengths, or dropping behind the ball on a line demarcated by the ball and the hole) would have afforded any relief. Most likely, he would have been left with the third option: stroke-and-distance, equivalent to the lost ball situation.
Gorse and pot bunkers (he hit two pot bunkers in fairways that required him to pitch out) were a big reason the ususally straight-hitting McDowell could mount no challenge to Scott on Sunday. Twice in a row, the affable Irishman has started in the final pairing in a major on Sunday and failed to capitalize on his opportunites.