The Rules of Golf can be imperfect, confusing, confounding, arcane and often difficult to interpret. But they are sacred.
Not for your Saturday morning foursome when someone hits it OB and you play it like you would a lateral hazard to save time and keep from backing up the rest of the course. Not when you play “ready golf” instead of waiting for who’s away. And not for when you play winter rules in the summer.
But they are for the Saturday morning dogfight when money is at stake and you play the ball down and don’t tamp down spike marks and hole everything out. And especially for competitions, amateur and professional, in which abiding by the rules is vital to the integrity of the outcome.
Lately, in the professional game, there have been brushes with the rules that have been quite unsavory and worth a harder look.
A couple of weeks ago, Jimmy Walker tweeted himself into a controversy when talking about the PGA Tour practice of “backstopping.” That’s when a player hits a pitch shot close to the hole and leaves the ball there without marking it, for the next player to use as a backstop in case the second player hits the pitch too firmly. If your ball hits the one on the green, you play it from where it comes to rest. The player whose ball was hit on the green is allowed to replace it to its previous spot.
Walker said in his tweets that he leaves the ball on the green for guys whom he likes and marks it for those whom he doesn’t.
The problem is that it’s squarely against the rules. And the penalty is permanent. Rule 22-1 states: “In stroke play, if the Committee determines that competitors have agreed not to lift a ball that might assist any competitor, they are disqualified.”
Paul Azinger, who broadcasts for Fox and previously worked for ESPN and ABC, has been railing on the air for years about this practice. Players, he says, have the responsibility of protecting the rest of the field.
"The bad guy is the guy who chips a ball when that ball is sitting there," Azinger told Golfweek. "Nobody should do that! Nobody should do that!"
So far, there is no word from the PGA Tour about the practice of backstopping and what the Tour might do about it.
Then, there was the incident with Phil Mickelson at the recent U.S. Open. At the time he swatted his moving putt back in the direction from which it came, he told his playing competitor, Andrew “Beef” Johnston, that he didn’t know what the rule was. When a rules official gave him a two-shot penalty, he accepted it and said, “Thank you.”
After some time to think after he signed his scorecard, he told Fox’s Curtis Strange that he intended to take advantage of the rules. The uproar commenced and many, including former USGA executive director David B. Fay, thought Mickelson should have been disqualified for a “serious breach” of Rule 1-2 for intentionally altering the path of the ball.
The U.S. Open rules committee disagreed and penalized Mickelson two shots for hitting a moving ball, citing Rule 14-5.
Now, we have Joel Dahmen, who accused Sung Kang of cheating during Sunday’s final round of the Quicken Loans National. Kang took what Dahmen deemed to be an illegal drop after Kang hit a shot into the water on the par-5 10th hole. Dahmen contended that the ball never crossed the margin of the lateral hazard and Kang said it did, about 30 yards from the green.
The argument went on so long that the group behind Dahmen and Kang played through. A ShotLink volunteer by the 10th green sided with Dahmen. A PGA Tour rules official eventually sided with Kang, who got his drop. Dahmen was incensed.
As long as there have been competitions, there have been a precious few who played fast and loose with the rules. I’ve been told a story of a prominent PGA Tour player of years gone by who would let the fingernails grow on his thumb and forefinger. He’d file each of them to make them sharp. If he found a spike mark in his line, he’d take his sharpened nails and cut the spike mark like a nail clipper.
Is that fundamentally worse than willfully violating the rules to your advantage or the advantage of another competitor? If you’re someone who thinks the rules are sacrosanct, you’ll say that any rules infringement is just as bad as any other.
Four days after Mickelson’s spectacle at the U.S. Open, he apologized via text message to a select few reporters. “I’m embarrassed and disappointed by my actions,” he said. Some believed Mickelson’s mea culpa came four days too late.
The PGA Tour and the USGA cannot go around being afraid to have players abide by the rules. If not for the rules, it’s the wild, wild West. One of the beauties of our game is that players call penalties on themselves. In no other game does that happen.
No one knows what minor or major infractions of the rules go on every day on the professional tours. The question now becomes: Do we really want to know?
Mike Purkey has written about golf for more than 30 years for a number of publications, including Golf Magazine and Global Golf Post. He lives in Charlotte, N.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @mikepurkeygolf