News & Opinion

Match-play miscues often hinge on rules

It’s that time of the year when many golfers experience match-play competitions, whether in their state and local championships or at the national and international levels such as at this week’s U.S. Amateur and the Solheim Cup.

The Rules of Golf might seem complicated to many golfers, but the rulebook tends to become even more confusing in match play. The rules differ greatly from stroke play to match play.

Consider Rule 15-3: “Wrong Ball.” In stroke play, if a competitor makes a stroke or strokes at a wrong ball, he incurs a penalty of two strokes. In match play, the penalty would be loss of hole. Two strokes can be far more penal than a loss of hole, from which a competitor can recover quickly.

American golfers are accustomed to playing far more stroke play than match play. Consequently, they are more apt to know the rules regarding stroke play and more prone to make mistakes in match play.

The problem likely goes beyond the nuances of match play when it comes to players and their basic knowledge of the rules. In recent years, infamous foul-ups in stroke play – Dustin Johnson on the last hole at the 2015 PGA at Whistling Straits, for example – would demonstrate that even some of the best golfers in the world do not grasp the Rules of Golf. When they turn to match play, which is infrequent for the professionals but more common in top state and national events, the uncertainty increases.

The biennial Ryder Cup, which matches the top U.S. male professionals against their counterparts from Europe, probably is golf’s best-known match-play competition. In 2010 at Celtic Manor, American Rickie Fowler put the wrong ball into play in a foursomes match after receiving relief from casual water. The miscue arguably cost him and partner Jim Furyk a half point in their match against Lee Westwood and Martin Kaymer. Ultimately, that half point came back to haunt the U.S. as it lost the matches, 14½-13½. A tie would have kept the Ryder Cup in American hands because the U.S. was the defending champion.

Another high-profile controversy took place recently at the U.S. Girls’ Junior Championship when Elizabeth Moon failed to putt out and raked a 6-inch putt before a concession could be given in her semifinal match against Erica Shepherd. The mistake cost Moon a chance to extend the match to the second sudden-death playoff hole. Shepherd advanced and won the championship.

The backlash by various media outlets and fans via social media toward Shepherd was uninformed and unnecessary. The cruelty on social media was incredibly brutal. Moon failed to observe the rules, and Shepherd did nothing wrong. One important piece of information that the critics did not know was that the U.S. Golf Association conducted a meeting on the putting green 15 minutes before Moon teed off in the opening round of match play. The purpose was to make competitors better aware of match-play rules.   

“For at least the last 28 years since I have been on staff, every one of our amateur championships has talked to all 64 players who make match play before they tee off in their first match,” Mike Davis, the USGA’s executive director, told Morning Read. “My understanding is we did just that [at the Girls’ Junior].

“We specifically cover things like concessions, order of play and other pertinent rules specific and important to match play. Ensuring that your opponent has in fact made a concession is indeed one of the pillars of match play. We would like to think that that is a rule that is not complicated or terribly hard to comprehend. While I certainly do not know, [the Moon incident] could have simply been a case of forgetting or getting lost in the moment.”

Whether it’s a 17-year-old amateur or a high-profile touring professional, the responsibility to know the Rules of Golf during competition falls totally upon the player. Without question, there are some unfamiliar differences in the rules for match play, but golfers need to take responsibility. It would seem that the USGA is going out of its way to ensure that match-play contestants are better equipped when the competition starts in its national championships.

Let’s hope that this week’s U.S. Amateur and Solheim Cup don’t produce any other infamous incidents.

Ted Bishop, who owns and operates The Legends Golf Club in Franklin, Ind., and is the author of “Unfriended,” was president of the PGA of America in 2013-14. Email: tedbishop38pga@aol.com; Twitter: @tedbishop38pga