The 27 biggest rules issues of 2021 … so far


Normally, a roundup of rules issues needs a full season to marinate. Yet while there are three-plus months left in 2021, we’ve already got enough infractions to compile a hearty list.

While they can sometimes be nauseating to report on and discuss, there is no question that the people dig rules mix-ups. They are often controversial and/or confrontational, and players not named Patrick Reed tend to get the benefit of the doubt given the absurdity of many of golf’s archaic rules. Believe it or not, Reed only appears once on this list, and he may have later been vindicated by one of the sport’s golden boys running into a similar situation in the same tournament, on the same day.

Below you’ll find a chronological list of the biggest rules issues of 2021, so far, including Reed, Rory (?!), Solheim “pick-up” gate and everything in between.

PGA Tour puts in internal out-of-bounds on 18th at Waialae

With no fans, and thus no grandstands, at the 2021 Sony Open, players seemingly had the option to pipe a drive down the 10th fairway when playing Waialae Country Club’s par-5 18th, which would have left them with an unobstructed short iron shot into the green. The PGA Tour made sure that did not happen by putting in internal out-of-bounds stakes left of the fairway, forcing players to have to play the hole the way it was intended.

Patrick Reed takes embedded ball relief on Saturday at Torrey Pines

If you needed any proof that rules controversies sell, look no further than the video the PGA Tour posted of Reed taking relief before asking for a rules official to take a look during the third round of the Farmers Insurance Open. Yep, 1.3 million views. New high score?

Naturally, because of Reed’s history, this lit Golf Twitter aflame, but Reed was quickly absolved of any wrongdoing and apparently was within his rights to lift the ball without needing a ruling first. It helped that Rory McIlroy, one of the most likable players on the planet, found himself in an identical situation on the very same day.

Rory McIlroy takes embedded ball relief on Saturday at Torrey Pines

As you can see, McIlroy did the same thing as Reed on No. 18, notifying his partners he believed it was embedded and lifting it without a rules official weighing in first, then taking relief. Also like Reed’s ball, it did appear to bounce, making it very hard to believe it was truly embedded after bouncing. Turns out, a volunteer had actually stepped on McIlroy’s ball, information that didn’t come to light until days later. At any rate, neither Reed nor McIlroy were penalized, making the whole situation seem like a whole lot of nothing, which didn’t make it any less entertaining.

Matthew Wolff assessed retroactive penalty at The American Express

Starting in 2018, television viewers were no longer allowed to call in rules infractions, a change welcomed by just about everyone except tattle tales. However, rules officials are still allowed to review video evidence of a potential penalty, which is exactly what happened to Matthew Wolff at The American Express in late January. After opening with 71 and then shooting a second-round 67, Wolff was notified that he had unknowingly committed an infraction on the first hole of his first round. During his backswing on his approach shot out of the left rough, Wolff’s ball moved, which was originally determined not to be a penalty since he was deemed not to be responsible for it moving. Video evidence later showed that he was, and he was hit with a one-stroke penalty, but no disqualification for signing an incorrect card.

Maverick McNealy’s ball moves at address on Saturday at Pebble Beach

An early-round flurry of birdies on Saturday at Pebble Beach saw California native Maverick McNealy quickly vault into contention. Then, at the par-3 fifth, he pulled his tee shot left of the green and when he went to address his second shot, the ball moved forward, into a worse lie than its original spot. Unfortunately, you don’t get points for that, and McNealy was hit with a frustrating one-stroke penalty and had to re-create his initial lie.

To McNealy’s credit, he fought all the way back to tie for second come Sunday, his best finish to date in his nascent PGA Tour career. Luckily, he missed out on a playoff by two shots, not one.

Russell Knox gets McNealy’d on Sunday at Pebble Beach

Less than 24 hours after McNealy was penalized for violating Rule 9-4, Russell Knox was hit with the same one-stroke penalty while also in contention. In the first fairway, the Scotsman had grounded his club, then picked it up and waggled it. When he went to ground it again, he noticed the ball roll slightly. He explained the situation to a rules official, and implied that the ball had moved while his club was in the air, which would mean he didn’t cause it to move. So, no penalty. Four holes later, though, Knox was informed that after review, it was deemed that he had caused it to move, a one-stroke penalty, just like McNealy’s:

Amazingly, Knox and McNealy’s golf balls probably did not move half of an inch, combined. And yet it each cost them a stroke while in serious contention of a PGA Tour event. And we wonder why people are so turned off by the Rules of Golf.

Matthew Wolff’s practice-stroke gaffe at the WGC-Concession

On Thursday at the WGC-Workday in March, Matthew Wolff’s opening round from hell somehow took an extra-messy turn when, during a practice stroke on a putting green, Wolff made contact with his golf ball. Fortunately for him, under new Rule 13-1d(1), Wolff was not given a penalty because he did not intend to make contact with the ball. Not that it would have mattered, as he went on to shoot an 11-over 83 and withdrew.

Annika Sorenstam gets penalized for incorrect ruling, still makes cut at Gainbridge LPGA

In her first start since 2008, Annika Sorenstam was reminded how cruel the Rules of Golf often can be. On the fifth hole of her first round, Sorenstam’s drive came to rest near a fence down the left side. The rules official on hand determined the ball to be in bounds, and Sorenstam believed she had a shot if she was allowed to open a gate that was part of the fence. The rules official said she was not, and Sorenstam was forced to take an unplayable and made triple bogey. The following day, that ruling was determined to be an incorrect one, though it was too late for the Hall of Famer to change her score. Even with a three-over 75 in her first round, though, the Swede made the cut.

Robert Gamez fails to sign his scorecard at Bay Hill, gets disqualified

Thirty-one years after his epic, walk-off hole-out victory at Bay Hill, Robert Gamez shot the worst score of his career at the 2021 Arnold Palmer Invitational during Friday’s second round. His 20-over 92 featured one triple bogey and five double bogeys, and was 13 shots worse than his opening-round 79. However, it didn’t count as an official round, as Gamez failed to sign his scorecard and was disqualified.

PGA Tour foils Bryson DeChambeau’s big plan at the Players

Many of Bryson DeChambeau’s grandiose plans often do come to fruition, but sometimes he’s just saying things to say them. At the Players Championship in March, DeChambeau saying he thought about driving it down the ninth hole from the 18th tee was very likely the latter. But the PGA Tour took action anyway, putting in internal out of bounds left of the lake at 18 to stop DeChambeau from getting too aggressive.

Viktor Hovland gets two-shot penalty thanks to … his mother?

On Thursday at the Players Championship, on the par-4 15th at TPC Sawgrass, Viktor Hovland moved his ball mark on the green so it would be out of the putting line of one of his playing competitors. Hovland proceeded to move it back—or at least he thought he did—finished out the hole and wound up signing for a two-under 70. But during a phone conversation with his mother after the round, she asked him if he’d be penalized for what happened at the 15th green. He had no idea what she was talking about, only to discover that when he moved his mark back, he did so in the wrong direction and not back to its original spot, violating Rule 14-7. Moms do, indeed, know best, even when they are messing with your livelihood (Hovland added two shots to his Thursday score and eventually went on to miss the cut).

Marshal runs over Bubba Watson’s ball at the Players

On the same day Hovland’s mom called a penalty on him, Bubba Watson got shafted by a marshal at TPC Sawgrass. According to Watson’s caddie, Ted Scott, a marshal was moving his cart when he ran over Watson’s ball. After that, the ball was never found, and Scott said on Twitter that someone claimed they had later dug it up and found it. Whoops, too late. Watson took a triple bogey on the hole with the lost ball penalty and went on to miss the cut.

In Gee Chun disqualified from Kia Classic for failing to sign her scorecard

Often times, failure to sign a scorecard usually indicates a player shot a poor round (see Robert Gamez). That was hardly the case for In Gee Chun at the Kia Classic, where she opened with rounds of 68 and 71 to put herself in a tie for fourth after 36 holes. However, she was DQ’d before her weekend even began when officials noticed Chun had never signed her second-round scorecard. Ouch.

Obscure rule stumps announcers in Scheffler-Kuchar match at WGC-Dell Match Play

This was less of a rules infraction situation and more of a using the rules of match-play situation by Scottie Scheffler and Matt Kuchar at Austin Country Club. During their semifinal match, Scheffler had found the water at the 12th hole, meaning he’d have to drop from 77 yards away. Kuchar found the green and had close to 90 feet left for eagle. Things got strange from there, as Kuchar wound up playing his ball first, because by rule Scheffler would be allowed to play his ball at the bottom of the lake if he wanted, and his ball was closer despite it being under water. Where Scheffler’s ball lied after his drop was irrelevant in this situation. So Kuchar went first and wound up winning the hole. Amazingly, a similar situation occurred at the next hole when Scheffler found the water again. Nick Faldo, on the call at the time, said he’d never known the rule in his 40-plus years as a professional.

Abraham Ancer unknowingly touches sand at the Masters, get penalized

Ancer became the latest to get hit with a penalty after a post-round video review on Thursday at the Masters. At the 15th hole, Ancer had grazed the sand with his wedge during his backswing in a greenside bunker. Ancer tweeted out a video clip of the infraction after the round, and it was viewed nearly 3 million times, likely by people trying to see at what point he actually grazes the sand:

Two strokes … for that. Rules, baby!

Si Woo Kim’s ball hangs on the lip a little too long at the RBC Heritage

We’ve seen it hundreds of times before—a pro’s ball hangs on the lip … and hangs … and hangs some more … never dropping and forcing them to kick in a zero-incher. This exact situation happened to Si Woo Kim on Saturday at Harbour Town’s par-4 third. Kim rolled his birdie putt from off the green and it sat on the lip, so he waited, and waited, and seriously waited some more, only for the ball to actually drop in the hole for birdie. Turns out, this was no cause for celebration, as a rules official came in and informed Kim he had waited well past the allotted 10 seconds—one minute and 10 seconds, to be exact. Kim didn’t actually tap in for par, but his score was changed from birdie to par for the infraction.

Yani Tseng fails to sign scorecard, gets DQ’d at Hugel-Air Premia LA Open

The former World No. 1’s 2021 struggles continued at Wilshire Country Club, where she was disqualified after just one round for failure to sign her scorecard. The LPGA was not able to confirm Tseng’s official score, but it was in the 80s.

Former major champ gets two-shot penalty for being late for tee time at Innisbrook

It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it’s a reminder that tour pros can’t be a minute or two late to their tee times like us weekend hackers. When we do it, we get a slap on the wrist from our buddies; when they do it, they get a two-stroke penalty per Rule 5.3a. That’s what happened to former PGA champ Jimmy Walker at the Valspar Championship, where he took a little too long on the range ahead of Round 2. It was the first time in his career Walker had been late to the first tee:

Walker did, in fact, make the cut, shooting a two-under 69 on Friday with the penalty and then rounds of 69 and 70 on the weekend to tie for 29th. Without the two-stroke pop, however, Walker would have placed inside the top 20, something he did just twice all of last season.

Former major champ DQ’d at PGA Championship for signing an incorrect scorecard

In the decade-plus since his stunning victory over Tiger Woods at the 2009 PGA Championship, Y.E. Yang hasn’t done much of anything on the PGA Tour. At Kiawah Island, his name grabbed headlines for the first time in a long time, but for the wrong reasons. The 49-year-old South Korean had signed an incorrect scorecard following his second round, writing down a par 4 on the 10th hole when he actually made a bogey 5. He was disqualified from the event, though he was going to miss the cut anyway with rounds of 75 and 84.

John Catlin receives rare pace-of-play penalty at PGA Championship

Slow-play penalties aren’t often given out on the PGA Tour, or for that matter in majors. Prior to this John Catlin situation at Kiawah Island in May, the last notable pace-of-play penalty doled out in a major was when 14-year-old Tianlang Guan was assessed a one-stroke infraction after four warnings at the 2013 Masters. Catlin, a three-time winner on the European Tour, recorded his first bad time on the seventh hole of his first round at the PGA, taking 74 seconds (!!) to play a shot. He received a warning, but five holes later he recorded another bad time, this one by taking only 63 seconds to play his shot. He was assessed a one-stroke penalty, and it wouldn’t be the last time this year slow play cost Catlin. Stay tuned.

Carlota Ciganda loses her match on brutal slow-play penalty

At Day 1 of the Bank of Hope LPGA-Match Play at Shadow Creek, Carlota Ciganda appeared to have won her first match in group play over Sarah Schmezel. However, in the scoring area, Ciganda was informed by LPGA officials that she was being assessed a slow-play penalty on the 18th hole. In a stroke-play event, this would have been a one-stroke infraction. But in match play it is a loss of hole, meaning Ciganda went from winning the match to losing it in a brutal turn of events.

John Catlin receives slow-play penalty AGAIN, this one more brutal than the last

Just weeks after being assessed a slow-play penalty at Kiawah, Catlin was assessed three strokes worth of pace-of-play violations during final qualifying for the U.S. Open at Meadow Springs Country Club in Richland, Wash. Catlin’s final score of two-under 142 over 36 holes saw him miss out on a playoff spot by two strokes. Without the slow-play penalties, he would have avoided the playoff entirely and earned a spot at Torrey Pines. What made it particularly brutal for Catlin was that another member of his group wasn’t exactly hustling, either, having shot an 85 in one of the rounds and waiting 15 minutes for a ruling early in their first round. Still, per the rules, if the entire group missed the pace-of-play checkpoints, they’d all be penalized, first with a one-stroke penalty, then a two-stroke penalty, then disqualification. The group committed two infractions after their original warning, therefore Catlin had three strokes knocked off his score. His U.S. Open debut will have to wait.

Mackenzie Hughes’ tree trouble at Torrey Pines

Every year a PGA Tour pro seems to get a ball stuck in a tree, creating a “pros are just like us” moment. This year’s sacrifice to the Golf Gods was Mackenzie Hughes, who unfortunately had it happen during the final round of the U.S. Open … while in contention.

Maria Fassi hit with slow-play penalty, misses cut at Women’s PGA

The summer of slow play continued in late June at Atlanta Athletic Club, site of the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship. Rising star Maria Fassi, coming off knee surgery, got off to a great start, shooting a first-round two-under 70. She went backwards on Friday, shooting a three-over 75, which would have still been good enough to make the cut. Unfortunately, a two-stroke slow-play penalty on the 18th hole gave her a second-round 77, putting her outside the cut line by one stroke.

Michael Campbell accidental tee shot at the Senior British Open

You know those funny/not-funny-at-all moments when you’re playing with you buddies and you accidentally knock your ball off the tee and everybody shouts “That’s 1!” (Ha! So original!) Well, it’s actually not 1 at all as we’ve seen when it’s happened in various pro golf events. The latest example was Michael Campbell at the Senior British Open. When he was taking a practice swing during the first round, he accidentally knocked his ball off the tee. But since the ball hadn’t been put into play yet on the hole, there is no penalty for doing this (Rule 6.1a).

Patton Kizzire’s driver dilemma at The Northern Trust

Patton Kizzire’s time in the FedEx Cup Playoffs was fraught with emotional frustrations (recall his broken putter and torn hat at the BMW Championship). But before that, there was the rain-delayed final-round at The Northern Trust. During the Monday round at Liberty National, Kizzire followed his wayward tee shot on the seventh hole, wrapping his driver around his shoulder as he anxiously watched the ball. His driver proceeded to snap across his back. The Rules of Golf allow you to replace equipment that breaks if done so from an outside influence or natural forces, but not if you damage the club in anger. Kizzire didn’t think he broke the club out of anger, or at least that wasn’t the intent (it wasn’t like he wacked it into the ground or his staff bag). At first a rules official agreed, but when Jordan Spieth raised the question again when Kizzire was about to use a replacement driver on the 10th hole, it was determined he couldn’t put a new club in “He was trying to protect me,” Kizzire said of Spieth after the round. Indeed, had Kizzire played with the replacement driver and it was deemed that he shouldn’t have put it in play, he would have been DQ’d and his 2020-21 season likely would have come to an end.

Nelly Korda’s “eagle” at the Solheim Cup

Rules controversies were few and far between in the late portion of the summer (a good thing!), but at the Solheim Cup in September those who patiently waited for some rules drama were rewarded. On Day 1 of the matches between the U.S. and Europe at Inverness, Nelly Korda “made” an eagle at the par-5 13th. Why the quotations? Because the ball never actually went in the hole. Korda’s 20-footer hung on the edge of the cup. Europe’s Madelene Sagstrom conceded the upcoming tap-in birdie, but she did not wait the 10 seconds Korda was allowed to see if the ball would drop first for eagle:

As Sagstrom pleaded, the ball was never actually going to drop, but that didn’t matter per Rule 13.3b, which states that “if the opponent in match play deliberately lifts or moves the player’s ball overhanging the hole before the waiting time has ended, the player’s ball is treated as holed with the previous stroke.” Korda was granted the eagle, winning the hole and eventually the match, which had an awkward feel the rest of the way. Some on social media suggested that Korda should have denied the ruling and halved the hole, but she is not allowed to do that, so the group had to accept it. Europe, of course, got the last laugh.

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