Rules of golf: 10 biggest controversies of the decade

There was no shortage of options for making this list.

Plenty of first-name only star power — Phil, Tiger, DJ and Lexi — were among the biggest offenders.

That’s because the Rules of Golf are complicated, and despite revisions and clarification and an overhaul that went into effect in 2019, there are still regular occurrences where the punishment doesn’t seem to fit the crime plus plenty of room for ambiguity.

Here are the 10 biggest Rules controversies that sparked debate in this decade:

10. Haotong Li, 2019 Dubai Desert Classic

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - JANUARY 27: Haotong Li of China takes his tee shot on hole one during Day Four of the Omega Dubai Desert Classic at Emirates Golf Club on January 27, 2019 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by David Cannon/Getty Images)
Haotong Li at the 2019 Omega Dubai Desert Classic in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by David Cannon/Getty Images)

In the final round, Haotong Li canned a birdie putt on the 18th hole to apparently finish in third place. But as ESPN’s Lee Corso would say, not so fast, my friends. Li’s caddie violated one of the new Rules of Golf that went into effect in 2019 – Rule 10.2b – “once the player begins taking a stance for the stroke, and until the stroke is made, the player’s caddie must not deliberately stand on or close to an extension of the line of play behind the ball for any reason.” The two-stroke change dropped Li to a tie for 12th place and cost him the equivalent of about $100,000.

As a result of this ruling and a similarly harsh interpretation of the Rule against Denny McCarthy at the Waste Management Phoenix Open in February, a clarification was released addressing issues with the Rule. In short, it clarified what it meant to “deliberately” stand behind the player and provided more guidance for when a player actually has “begun taking his or her stance.”

9. Tiger Woods, 2013 Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship

Tiger Woods at the 2013 Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship. (Photo by Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images)

On the fifth hole of the second round, Woods flared his drive to the right between the fairways of the fifth and sixth holes and into a scrubby plant in the sand. Woods asked playing competitor Martin Kaymer to confirm his ball was plugged and Kaymer agreed. Woods took what he believed was a free drop, chipped out sideways onto the fairway and made bogey.

Golfweek’s Alistair Tait questioned whether Woods was entitled to relief from an embedded ball in the sand. Tait took it up with rules official Miguel Vidor. Initially, he upheld that Tiger was entitled to the drop, but afterwards had second thoughts. He consulted with referee Andy McFee who agreed with Tait that relief wasn’t allowed in the sand, and Tiger was given a two-stroke penalty and missed the cut.

8. Brian Davis, 2010 RBC Heritage

Brian Davis at the 2010 RBC Heritage at Harbour Town Golf Links. (File photo)

On the first playoff hole with Jim Furyk, Davis attempted to play his third shot from a penalty area and inadvertently struck a loose impediment – a reed – during his takeaway. Davis’s action was indiscernible without the help of slow-motion video replay, but he called the penalty on himself and was assessed a two-stroke penalty for violating Rule 13.4.

“I know I did,” Davis responded at the time, according to PGA Tour tournament director Slugger White. “I could not have lived with myself if I had not.”

Davis was lauded for his character and good sportsmanship. Unfortunately, that turned out to be the closest he’s ever come to victory in 369 starts on the PGA Tour.

7. Tiger Woods, 2013 BMW Championship

Tiger Woods at the 2013 BMW Championship. (Photo by Michael Cohen/Getty Images)

Woods was penalized when he moved sticks near his ball behind the first green during the second round at Conway Farms, causing the ball to move. “Oscillation Gate” was set off after a PGA Tour Entertainment employee filmed Tiger in the woods, and it appeared that his ball moved ever-so-slightly. PGA Tour rules official Slugger White declared the evidence was damning enough to slap a one-stroke penalty on Woods (who still disagrees to this day) under Rule 18-2 and another stroke because Woods failed to replace the ball properly.

6. Phil Mickelson, 2018 U.S. Open

Jun 16, 2018; Southampton, NY, USA; Phil Mickelson speaks to media after playing the third round of the U.S. Open golf tournament at Shinnecock Hills GC - Shinnecock Hills Golf C. Mandatory Credit: Dennis Schneidler-USA TODAY Sports
Phil Mickelson at the 2018 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills GC. (Photo: Dennis Schneidler/USA TODAY Sports)

In a moment of temporary insanity in the third round, Mickelson played hockey with his ball on the ultra-slick 13th green at Shinnecock Hills while it was still rolling (likely off the green). Mickelson had broken rule 14-5: “A player must not make a stroke at his ball while it is moving.”

He received a two-stroke penalty, but in the eyes of many, should’ve been disqualified for his actions.

5. Tiger Woods, 2013 Masters

Tiger Woods drops on No. 15 at Augusta National during the second round of the 2013 Masters. (Photo: Getty images)

On the 15th hole during the second round, Woods was tied for the lead when he pitched his third shot and it ricocheted off the flag and into the water. After dropping, he played his fifth shot from the wrong spot – a couple of yards behind the original spot instead of close to it.

A former rules official watching on TV called in the potential violation of Rule 26-1. Masters officials initially decreed that he hadn’t broken the rule, and Woods signed his scorecard for 71. But on closer examination, Woods was penalized two strokes, making the scorecard he’d signed after his round incorrect. After meeting with Woods early Saturday morning, the Masters applied Rule 33-7 (Disqualification Penalty; Committee Discretion) that allows a committee to waive disqualification for an incorrect scorecard, permitting Woods to play on despite many believing he should have been disqualified or withdrawn on his own.

4. Anna Nordqvist, 2016 U.S. Women’s Open

Anna-Nordqvist-US Open-naked-eye-golf-rule
Officials discuss a penalty with Anna Nordqvist at the 2016 U.S. Women’s Open. (Photo: Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY Sports)

Nordqvist was assessed a two-stroke penalty for touching sand with her club in a fairway bunker – a violation of Rule 13-4b – after officials reviewed high-def video from the telecast. Nordqvist, who was playing the 17th hole for what was the second of a three-hole playoff against Brittany Lang, wasn’t informed of the violation until a hole later. The USGA’s handling of this situation, especially the timing of the decision, was again called into question.

3. Dustin Johnson, 2010 PGA Championship

Dustin Johnson hits from a bunker on the 18th hole at Whistling Straits during the final round of the 2010 PGA Championship. (Photo: Getty Images)

On the final hole at Whistling Straits, Johnson’s drive sailed right into a patch of sand. Players had been warned that all sandy areas would be treated as bunkers. Nevertheless, Johnson grounded his club in what was deemed to be such an area before his second shot, leading to a two-stroke penalty. It knocked him out of a playoff with Martin Kaymer and Bubba Watson (which Kaymer ultimately won). Interestingly, it wasn’t even Johnson’s biggest Rules controversy of the decade.

2. Lexi Thompson, 2017 ANA Inspiration

Lexi Thompson rule USGA ruling
Lexi Thompson at the 2017 ANA Inspiration in Rancho Mirage, California. (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)

As she was walking off the 12th green during the final round of the ANA Inspiration, Thompson was informed by an official that she would be assessed a four-shot penalty – for replacing her ball in an improper spot on Saturday. It turned her 67 into a 71 and wiped out her two-stroke lead. A viewer noticed that Thompson had replaced her ball an inch away from its original location on a 1-foot putt on the 17th hole Saturday while watching the telecast.

After officials reviewed the tape, Thompson was assessed a two-shot penalty for putting her ball in the wrong spot (Rule 20-7c), and then a two-shot penalty for signing an incorrect scorecard (Rule 6-6d). She regained her composure to tie So Yeon Ryu, but lost on the first hole of a playoff.

The Rule was changed shortly thereafter, and Decision 34-3/10 (Limitations on Use of Video Evidence) is often referred to as the “Lexi Rule.”

1.  Dustin Johnson, 2016 U.S. Open

Dustin Johnson talks with a USGA official at the 2016 U.S. Open.. (Photo: David Cannon/Getty Images)

When Johnson’s ball moved on the fifth hole while he addressed a putt, he backed off and informed a rules official that he didn’t cause the ball to move. He was initially cleared of any wrongdoing, but on the 12th tee box, he was informed of a possible infraction and his score was eventually changed from a par 4 to a bogey 5. It was total chaos as neither players nor fans knew for certain how the potential ruling would impact the leaderboard. It was not the USGA’s finest hour. Nevertheless, Johnson still won at Oakmont.

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