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Poulter Hit by the Rule Book

Dermot Gilleece on players getting tangled up in the rules of golf

Posted Nov 29, 2010 by Chris Stewart


Since the time more than 15 years ago when David Feherty was penalised under a local rule of the US PGA Tour for marking his ball on the green with a hotel key, I felt nothing could surprise me about transgressions of this nature.  Then we had the Ian Poulter incident during a play-off with Robert Karlsson for the Dubai World Championship last Sunday.

This time, Poulter incurred a one-stroke penalty under Rule 20 by accidentally letting the ball drop when in the process of replacing it on the second tie hole, so causing his coin marker to flip over.  While most observers argued that it didn't really affect the outcome, Poulter's mood afterwards suggested that he, for one, thought differently.  And Karlsson was candid enough to admit that the error came as a very welcome bonus in his battle for the title.  

No matter how often this sort of situation occurs, the rules never fail to fascinate.  A particular favourite of mine occurred in February 2001 in what became a truly memorable play-off for the Buick Invitational, involving Phil Mickelson and Frank Linkliter.  Among other things, it proved that ignorance of the rules among tournament professionals can be quite remarkable, especially when one considers that they actually earn their livelihood from playing the game. 

This was certainly the case when Mickelson and Linkliter went into sudden-death in the $3.5 million event. The really interesting stuff took place on the third play-off hole, the par-four 17th.  First on the tee, Mickelson carved his drive into a canyon on the left.  Then the right-handed Linkliter proceeded to hook his drive into the same canyon.  Almost inevitably, both players hit provisional balls down the fairway.

As they stepped from the tee, Mickelson and Linkliter knew instinctively they would be better-off not finding their original drives, for the simple reason that they wouldn't be able to get proper relief.  On the other hand, if the balls were deemed to be lost, they could proceed to their provisionals which were in good shape.

It was then that rules official, Mickey Bradley, pointed out to the players that the notion of declaring their balls lost was meaningless under the rules.  Though they were fully entitled to decline to look for the wayward balls, this didn't preclude anybody else from doing so.  "As long as a spotter finds it within five minutes, that ball remains in play," he said.

In the event, Linkliter's original ball was found within the stipulated time, which meant that it remained his ball in play.  And since there was no place to drop it, his only option was to return to the tee and hit another tee-shot. This heightened Mickelson's awareness that he had an advantage, provided his original drive wasn't found.  So he asked the marshals not to look for his ball which, it must be acknowledged, was not in breach of the rules.  But he could also had gone directly to his provisional ball which was closer to the hole that his original might have been, and brought it into play (Rule 27-2b), even while the search for his original continued.

He opted not to.  "I didn't think it would have been right," he said afterwards.  "I think that would have been a very unsportsmanlike action, so I chose not to do it."  Many thought it decidedly odd, however, that Mickelson should have considered legitimate application of Rule 27-2b to have been "unsportsmanlike action", especially when he had been doing all in his power to prevent his original ball from being found.

As things turned out, a spotter found Mickelson's original ball within the five minutes, forcing him to join Linkliter back on the tee.   And Linkliter, quite correctly, was first to hit, given that his original drive had come to rest further from the hole than Mickelson's.  "But it wouldn't have been a penalty had Phil hit first," said another rules official, George Boutell.  "Playing out of turn in strokeplay is not in breach of the rules."

Those anoracks among you may recall that with his third drive, Mickelson almost repeated his original error.  On this occasion, however, his ball hit a tree and bounced back into rough from where he went on to card a double-bogey six.  And it became good enough to win the title after Linkliter had the misfortune to three-putt from 15 feet for a triple-bogey seven.

On the following day, the switchboard at US Golf Association's headquarters was jammed with calls from TV viewers convinced that a coach and four had been driven through the rule-book. Indeed the reaction was such that the USGA considered it appropriate to put out a story on their Web-site confirming that the rulings of PGA Tour officials were perfectly correct.
As was rules official Andy McFee's decision in the Poulter case last Sunday.

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