The U.S. Open championship at Pebble Beach last weekend produced almost as many rules issues as golf catastrophes. One ruling contributed to 54-hole leader Dustin Johnson’s unraveling over the first few holes on Sunday.

The USGA reported that, through Saturday’s third round, rules officials issued 168 rulings.  Not surprisingly, the most common subject for rulings was the water hazard rule.  Many rulings involved relief from obstructions.

                                  Water Hazards

Water hazards, which strike fear into the hearts weekend golfers, often confront the player whose ball has landed in a watery abyss with several options.  The options vary depending on whether the hazard is a normal water hazard (marked by yellow stakes or lines) or a “lateral water hazard” (marked by red stakes or lines).  In all cases, the player is subject to a one-stroke penalty if he or she opts to take relief from the hazard.  Keep in mind, however, that the player always has the option of playing the ball from the hazard.

If it is “known or virtually certain” that a ball is in a water hazard, Rule 26-1 provides two general relief options:

  • Play from the spot from which the ball was last played.
  • Drop a ball behind the water hazard.  The ball must be dropped on an imaginary line demarcated by the hole and the point where the ball last crossed the margin of the hazard.  There is no limit to how far behind the hazard the ball may be dropped.

In addition, if the ball is in a lateral water hazard, the player has an additional option:

  • Drop a ball outside the hazard within two club-lengths of (and not nearer the hole) than either (a) the point where the ball last crossed the margin of the hazard, or (b) a point on the opposite margin of the hazard that is equidistant from the hole. (Decision 26-1/15 contains an illustration•explaining this option.)  This option is designed to provide relief where it is impossible or impractical to drop behind the hazard, such as where a body of water parallels the hole.

                                  The Supreme Lateral Water Hazard

The USGA encountered a unique problem on the 18th hole at Pebble Beach, the famous par 5 which skirts the ocean.  (Bernie Loehr, Director of Rules of Golf for the USGA, referred to this as the “largest lateral water hazard in golf.”)  A long bunker runs along the margin of the hazard on part of the hole, so that a golfer taking relief from the lateral water hazard under the third option would have to drop the ball in the bunker.  The sand is soft, making it likely that a dropped ball would plug.  Deeming this as overly punitive, the USGA established a local rule for the Open permitting players to drop in designated dropping zones next to the bunker.

                                  Is Your Ball in a Hazard or Simply Lost?

An important point to keep in mind is that Rule 26 only applies if it is “known or virtually certain” the ball is in the water hazard. Otherwise, if the ball is not found, Rule 27 (“Ball Lost or Out of Bounds”) applies.  In the case of a lost ball, the player must play another ball from the spot where the ball was played, taking a one-stroke penalty.  This is known as the “stroke and distance” rule, and is more punitive than the water hazard rule.  (To avoid the logistical problem of having to return to the spot where the ball was played, Rule 27-2 authorizes the player to play a “provisional ball” when the original ball might be lost or out of bounds.)

This issue arose when Dustin Johnson’s tee shot on the third hole on Sunday sailed far left over a group of trees and into an area behind the 16th green, part of which was designated as a lateral hazard. Neither any of the spectators nor the USGA observer saw the ball come down.  When the ball was not found within the allotted five minutes, Johnson was required to return to the tee.  (See the definition of “Lost Ball” and Rule 27-1(c).)  He double-bogeyed the hole, lost the lead, and went on to shoot an 82, the highest score recorded by a 54-hole leader in 100 years.

It would have been more advantageous for Johnson had he been able to invoke Rule 26 and drop outside the lateral hazard.  In fact, the ball eventually was found in the hazard.  However, because it was not “known or virtually certain” that the ball was in the hazard at the expiration of the 5-minute search period, the water hazard rule did not apply.  (For an explanation of the meaning of “known or virtually certain,” see Decision 26-1/1.)

                                  Ball Theft by Rogue Seagull

During the tournament, a player’s ball that had come to rest was picked up by a seagull, which flew away with its prize.  (One can only speculate whether the seagull thought the ball was something edible, a lost egg, or was simply collecting a souvenir of the Open.) The player was not required to pursue the bird and play the ball from wherever it was deposited.  (Even the rules of golf are not quite that Draconian.)

Rule 18-1 states that, if a ball at rest is moved by an “outside agency,” the ball must be replaced without penalty.  What is an “outside agency”?  Essentially, anything other than the player (or his partner, if applicable), his (or his partner’s) caddie, a ball played by the player (or his partner), or the player’s (or his partner’s) equipment.  A seagull clearly meets these criteria.  Accordingly, the player was permitted to drop a ball at the scene of the crime.

                                  Fathers as Caddies

The final round of the Open fell on Father’s Day.  Graeme McDowell, the amiable, somewhat obscure Irishman who remained steady on a day when some of golf’s biggest names faltered, embraced his Dad on the 18th green after delivering the ultimate Father’s Day gift: the U.S. Open championship.  Two other players, Nick Watney and Steve Wheatcroft, commemorated the day by letting their fathers carry their bags on the 18th hole.  Did this present any rules concerns?

According to a discussion on the USGA website, this “caddy-for-a-hole” gesture was permissible.  Rule 6-4 permits a player to employ multiple caddies, provided that the player has no more than one caddie at a time.

Note, however, that a caddie is broadly defined as someone “who assists the player,” which encompasses duties other than simply carrying the player’s clubs (e.g., measuring distance, assisting with choice of club, reading greens).  Conceivably, had Watney’s or Wheatcroft’s regular caddies continued to assist them in other matters on the 18th hole, the players could have been in violation of Rule 6-4.  (See Decision 6-4/4, where a boy hired by a caddie to carry some of the player’s clubs was ruled to be a second caddie.) However, I suspect that even the USGA would be reluctant to impose a penalty under these circumstances.

                                  Sergio’s Close Encounter with a Tee Marker

On the fourth hole on Sunday, Sergio Garcia hit a wild tee shot.  Frustrated, he slammed his club against the tee marker, which split in half.  (Tiger Woods does not have a monopoly on temper tantrums.)  Should he have been penalized?

As you might expect, the placement of tee markers is the province of the course or tournament committee, and players are not free to move them to their advantage.  (See Rule 11-2.)  Moving a tee marker to improve your stance or swing results in a 2-stroke penalty (or loss of hole in match play).  A golfer who moves a tee marker out of his opinion that the markers have been misplaced, or placed in the wrong direction, may be subject to disqualification.  (See Decision 11-2/2(b).)  (How often have you been tempted to do this on your local muni course after the maintenance person mowing the teeing ground creatively replaced the markers?)

However, once the player makes a stroke from the tee, the tee markers are deemed to be “moveable obstructions.”  (See Decision 11-2/1.)  Let’s say I nearly miss the ball on my tee shot and the ball dribbles across the teeing ground and comes to rest against the tee marker.  (I haven’t done this recently.)  I am entitled to move the tee marker to play my second shot, provided that I replace the marker.  (A small consolation given the indignity of the tee shot.)

There is no penalty for clumsiness.  If I stumble over a tee marker and dislodge it, I must simply replace it. (See Decision 11-2/2(c).)

Finally, even tee-marker abuse by ill-tempered players is excused.  Decision 11-2/2(d) states that if a player moves a tee marker by intentionally kicking it or striking it with a club, there is no penalty and the marker must be replaced.  Thus, Sergio’s behavior on the fourth tee at Pebble Beach Sunday might have violated golf etiquette, but not the rules of golf.  USGA officials were able to replace the marker.  Perhaps the broken marker will end up in the USGA golf museum, unless the seagull flew off with it as a souvenir.

Note:• Jack Ross is a rules official with the Massachusetts Golf Association.  He completed an intensive workshop on the rules of golf conducted by the USGA and the PGA.  This article was originally published in Golf Rules Corner, ValleySportsNow.com (6/26/2010).