MEDINAH, IL — The opening match of the 39th Ryder Cup quickly became contentious when Jim Furyk challenged Graeme McDowell’s request for relief from a sprinkler head on the fringe of the second green. Play in the foursomes (alternate shot) match between McDowell and Rory McIlroy and Furyk and Brant Snedeker was delayed until a senior rules official arrived on the scene to resolve the issue.
McIlroy’s tee shot on the par-3 second hole rolled through the green to the back fringe, and came to rest several inches in front of a sunken sprinkler head. The ball was directly on a line between the sprinkler head and the hole, so that McDowell’s backswing on his pitch shot would cross over the sprinkler head.
McDowell requested relief after taking several practice swings that purported to establish that the depressed area in the grass around the sprinkler head might interfere with his stroke. The rules official assigned to the match initially seemed to acquiesce, and McDowell placed a tee in the ground to mark his nearest point of relief.
Furyk vehemently objected. He was no doubt motivated by the possibility that, had McDowell obtained relief, he might have been able to play from the putting surface after his drop. It appeared that, given the slope, if McDowell dropped the ball on the fringe it could have rolled onto the green. This is permissible, provided that the ball does not roll more than two club-lengths.
Rule 24-2a provides relief from an immovable obstruction if it interferes with the player’s stance or intended swing. There is no relief from a “mental obstruction” if there is no actual interference with stance or swing. For example, a rules decision provides that no relief is available when a ball lies to the side of a sprinkler head, even though it might create a distraction.
McDowell had a plausible claim for relief, because the ball was close enough to the depressed area surrounding the sprinkler head that it was conceivable that it might have interfered with his swing. Many rules officials would likely allow relief in such circumstances. McDowell certainly had better grounds for relief than did Charl Schwartzel , who was allowed a drop at the Memorial tournament last year when his ball lay between two sprinkler heads and there seemed no chance of interference.
The Ryder Cup, however, is no ordinary event, and gamesmanship is an integral part of the competition. Perhaps Furyk was sending a message to their European counterparts: you’re in for a fight, and everything will be contested. His position was vindicated when a senior rules official determined that McDowell was not entitled to relief.
McDowell proceeded to pitch the ball about six feet past the hole, and McIlroy missed the par putt. The United States was one up, both on the scoreboard and in rules interpretation. Don’t count on the Europeans conceding any rules issues the rest of the weekend.
Jack Ross is the editor of Ross’s Rulings, and is on-site at the Ryder Cup.