I apologize for the length of this post. If I had more time I’d have written a shorter one. – Erik J. Barzeski

That Haotong Li penalty was an outrage! He didn’t gain an advantage, and that rule is stupid! Plus why is it two strokes?! This is why people hate golf and hate the Rules! How is this growing the game?”

Ditto for Adam Schenk being penalized two strokes for a caddie standing in a forbidden spot when the player was taking his stance and not backing out in a green side bunker at the Honda Classic. He was notified the next day that he’d gotten a two-stroke penalty.

“Or how about that Rickie Fowler thing? Why, it’s against the integrity of the game. He shouldn’t have been penalized there! He didn’t make his ball go in the water, why is he penalized for that?” No, the first Rickie thing — where his ball dropped and then placed rolled back into the penalty area after it had been sitting at rest for a minute or so.

Oh, and then there’s the other Rickie Fowler thing, where he was penalized for dropping from shoulder height and not correcting his error before playing the ball. Despite the fact that he’d dropped properly weeks before multiple times, Rickie called the Rule a “terrible change.”

Then he proceeded to mock the Rules with this:

These types of statements often come up when someone is perceived to have been wronged by the Rules of Golf. And they’re made by many different groups. Fans, of course, are loud on Twitter and Facebook. But often surprisingly PGA Tour players, professional studio commentators, and others who are not only fans of the game, but who have chosen a career in the game see fit to voice “hot takes” about how the Rules are “stupid” or “lack integrity” or “shouldn’t penalize a player for X or Y.”

Rules geeks like talking about the rules, and we appreciate that the Rules didn’t just come to be without much thought. The “modernized” Rules came after more than seven years of study and thought. So, it can be frustrating when the Rules of Golf are bashed in the wake of a high-profile incident, and especially so when those railing against the particular hot topic aren’t rules experts themselves.

The fans — and quite often the PGA Tour players and/or the media reporting the stories — often make a multitude of errors, and their “hot takes” are often quite wrong or silly. Below, I’ve listed some of the more common problems with the “hot takes” that spread after a high-profile rules incident.

They Get The Rule Wrong

A good number of the reactions to Rickie’s penalty in Phoenix — he’d placed his ball and, about a minute later while he was 10 or 12 yards away, the ball rolled back into the same penalty area from which he’d already taken relief — said that the Rule was unfair because Rickie hadn’t caused the ball to move and he shouldn’t be penalized for the ball rolling into the penalty area again.

What the hot takes get wrong is that Rickie wasn’t penalized because his ball moved. That would be pretty ridiculous, and warrant some outrage. Instead, Rickie chose to take a penalty stroke so that he could take relief from the penalty area (for a second time). He had the option to play the ball as it lie, but for obvious reasons chose not to do so.

Rickie also had two other options:

  • He could have chosen to place the ball just before he was ready to play. He didn’t have to place the ball before wandering around scoping out the green for several minutes.
  • He didn’t have to drop and ultimately place his ball on the steep bank at all. He could have re-played the shot. He’d have been laying four and could have chipped on and taken two putts to make the same score he did after one-putting with a second penalty stroke.

In Haotong Li’s situation, people were talking about how the caddie hadn’t helped the player line up, or how he hadn’t “deliberately” done anything to help his player align, when alignment is not what the rule actually forbids. What Rule 10.2b(4) forbids is a caddie standing in a place during a period of time, and Li’s caddie was standing in that restricted place during that restricted period of time. It mattered not whether the caddie said “a little to the left” or whether he just stood there looking at his player without motioning or saying anything… just as it would have been a breach of the rules to stand there without motioning or saying anything while the player made a stroke in 2018. In fact, Haotong Li’s caddie is free to help his player align; he’s free to say “A little left. A little more… there, you got it!” So long as he doesn’t do it from the restricted spot during the restricted time. Or, now, if his player completely backs out and resets.

They Don’t Appreciate that Rules Cover Many Situations

The Rules of Golf attempt to cover just about every possible permutation of every situation. They try to do so without having to write a thousand permutations of very, very similar rules.

At the end of the day, Rickie’s ball in play rolled into a penalty area, where it remained in play. Under the Rules, Rickie was entitled to take relief for the cost of one penalty stroke, and he did so. Had Rickie chipped his ball there, and had his ball then rolled into the hazard after sitting at rest for awhile, people would likely have no problem with the Rule. Had the ball rolled closer to the hole (or even in!), people would be talking about what a great break Rickie got! But because Rickie placed the ball first, many think the rule is “bad” or “stupid.”

Haotong Li’s situation – a caddie standing in a restricted area during a restricted period of time – covers situations on the putting green of the 72nd hole of a multi-million dollar tournament just the same as it covers an early Tuesday club championship round where a player is lining up in order to hit a ball through a two-foot gap between trees on the second hole of the first round.

They Don’t Understand the Reasoning Behind the Rules

Let’s take the drop height one. Despite the fact that the proposed rules were released long ago, and the finalized rules were released in March of last year, PGA Tour players are seemingly unaware of many of the changes here, despite the fact that they often make millions of dollars playing the game.

For about 30 of the larger rules changes, the USGA and R&A published a document explaining the reasoning behind the change. For the drop height rule, a simplified version can be found here: http://www.usga.org/content/usga/home-page/rules-hub/rules-modernization/major-changes/new-procedure-for-dropping-a-ball.html. The “Reasons for Change” section is pretty clear, and explains that there are three main reasons for the change:

  1. It increases the chance the ball stays in the relief area.
  2. It retains the randomness about what kind of lie you’ll get.
  3. It minimizes the chances of a ball embedding in a bunker.

All three of those are good reasons that either make it “easier” on the player or make dropping faster. This pairs with other rules about the size of the relief area, the fact that a ball can’t roll up to two club lengths away (they wanted relief to be taken closer to where the ball originally came to rest), and makes the general rules regarding dropping easier and more uniform.

But because players are used to dropping from shoulder height, and because they feel awkward (who wouldn’t if you drop like Bryson DeChambeau) dropping from knee height… they decry the rule as “stupid” or “terrible.”

BTW, to drop from knee height: bend forward or sideways a few inches and let go of the ball. It’s not that difficult, and it doesn’t look all that weird:

They Don’t Understand the Underlying Principles

I agree that even had Haotong Li’s caddie helped him line up, he likely wouldn’t have gained more than a one-stroke advantage, so a two-stroke penalty seems severe. And I agree that Rickie Fowler simply brain farted in dropping from the incorrect height, and that he likely didn’t “gain an advantage” that time in doing so.

But again, the Rules cover more than one specific situation, and the penalty strokes given out are meant to address any potential advantage, whether realized in any particular instance, or not. The principles behind the Rules of Golf (I’m hopeful that the USGA will update the Tufts book of the same name soon) list a working principle: “The penalty must be not less than the advantage which the player could derive from the particular Rule violation.”

But, Erik, you just said you agree Rickie and Haotong (and Adam Schenk, if I’m including that) didn’t get any real advantage… and that quote just seems to back up the idea that there shouldn’t be any penalty!

To that I say you must understand again that the Rule – which has an associated penalty for its breach – covers a multitude of situations. The Committee cannot be in charge of deciding whether or not each specific instance gave an advantage and how much so. That would be an impossible position from which to attempt to play a game. So the Rules are written in such a way that the penalty for a breach of any rule is essentially greater or equal to the worst breach of that rule that’s reasonably imaginable.

The Principles book explains this working principle this way:

In other words, whether the violation is inadvertent or deliberate, whether it occurs as a result of play or is due to the accidental or purposeful act of the player, or whether it is brought about by failure to proceed in accordance with the Rules, regardless of the circumstances, the penalty must always be of sufficient magnitude to discourage the player from seeking or receiving advantage under the Rules.

In other words, if the drop rule was changed to “knee height or above,” in addition to nullifying the “reasons for change,” players would be able to game the system, dropping from above their heads when they wanted the ball to bounce or roll far enough away, and dropping from knee height when in a bunker or when they’re certain they’ll like the lie they can get.

Just because Rickie likely didn’t gain an advantage with his one drop does not mean it’s not possible to gain an advantage from dropping improperly, and a stroke penalty covers that potential advantage.

They Misuse the Word “Fair”

“Fair” in the Rules of Golf simply means that everyone plays under the same rules, yet golf fans (and media, etc.) apply their own judgment as to whether a rule is “fair” or not based on their beliefs about how “just” something “feels” to them.

Was it “fair” that Rickie Fowler got a penalty stroke for dropping improperly? YES! Because had anyone else done that, the same Rules would have applied, and they’d have been given the same penalty. What would have been unfair is if Rickie had not been penalized, and then two weeks later, at some other event, someone else had been penalized for doing the exact same thing. THAT would be unfair.

It’s not unfair to apply the rules correctly and accurately. The only time unfairness can creep in is when players or referees begin to make judgment calls when there is no room for them. Rickie clearly hadn’t dropped from knee height, or anywhere near knee height.

They Assume Intent Matters

Many times, the Rules simply don’t care about intent at all. Did Haotong Li’s caddie intend to help his player line up? No. But he was deliberately standing in a forbidden area during a forbidden point in time. Did Rickie intend to gain any advantage when dropping from shoulder height? No, but he breached the Rule all the same, and neither Rule talks about intent (outside of the caddie being in a location “deliberately”).

Intent can’t matter in many Rules because that would be a mess. Different players or referees would apply different standards of judgment, players could lie… everyone would be trying to read the minds of everyone else. It’d be a mess. Intent doesn’t matter in many situations because it can’t. Not if you want to create a fair game that everyone can play with an understanding of how things work. The best Rules, the clearest Rules, are those that do not require any judgment calls or mind-reading.

Rules are often simply a matter of fact: did something occur or not? Did the player drop from the correct height? Was the caddie (Li’s or Schenk’s) on or near an extension of the line of play when the player took his stance? Did Rickie want relief from a penalty area?

They Think “The Spirit of the Rule” Matters

It doesn’t, partly because the spirit of the game of golf takes precedent, and the Spirit of the Game says that players should treat others well, take care of the course, and play by and obey the Rules.

The Spirit of the Law works in a courtroom, but not in a game. If a husband runs a few red lights late at night while rushing his pregnant wife to the emergency room, we can understand that the spirit of the law might not be to punish the husband in that situation.

But the spirit of the rule doesn’t apply in golf, in games, because we aren’t talking about life and death situations. We aren’t talking about laws, many of which deal with human morality, public safety or well-being, etc. We’re talking about arbitrary rules conjured over time by a ruling body that a person voluntarily submits to in choosing to play the game.

The “Spirit” of the Rule doesn’t matter because everyone would read the “spirit” differently. If that husband killed two children while running red lights to get his wife to the emergency room, we’d likely convene a jury and hold a court case to decide whether his actions were “within the spirit of the law” or not (as well as his penalty), but golf can neither afford such a luxury nor do the stakes in golf rise to the level of life and death.

They Side With the Players

If PGA Tour players (or Haotong Li) wanted to avoid a penalty for their caddies standing on an extension of the line of play while they take their stance… then the simplest solution is to simply make sure the caddie is not on the extension of the line of play while they take their stance.

If Rickie Fowler wanted to avoid a penalty for dropping incorrectly… all he had to do was drop correctly, as he’d done weeks before in Phoenix. Yeah, he had a brain fart, but he broke the rules, clearly, and the penalty was warranted and correct.

If you want to avoid any penalty, in fact, the simplest thing is to follow the Rule. When a PGA Tour player breaches the Rules, often fan reaction is to blame the Rules, not the player who breached them! When an NFL player clearly breaches a rule, fans don’t jump on Twitter to decry about how “that penalty wasn’t fair!” They do this for missed or incorrect calls, but not for correct ones!

This is Getting Old

This cycle has occurred multiple times this year, and I’m getting tired of it.

The USGA and R&A (and the PGA Tour, European Tour, LPGA Tour, PGA, and other groups) spent over seven years revising the Rules, and some players have gotten caught up in a few of them. Few have intended to break the Rules, and I feel badly for them that they did, but “rules are rules,” and they’re only fair if they’re enforced evenly and accurately.

PGA Tour players should, in my opinion, shut up and learn the Rules. Stop whining on Twitter or to the media about how “dumb” something is when it’s clear you don’t even know why the ruling bodies changed a Rule. Fans, media, stop automatically taking the side of the players by applying your own individual perspective on whether something “feels right” to you or not.

When a rules situation occurs, ask yourself questions like these:

  • What does the rule actually say?
  • What is the purpose for the rule?
  • What other types of situations does the rule cover?

The Rules are what they are after hundreds of years. They weren’t just written in a few hours last year. Each Rule has a history, a back story, and a purpose. Learn those, and resist the urge to offer your “hot take” because Rickie Fowler seems like a nice guy.

To players on the PGA Tour, I don’t care if you think dropping from knee height looks stupid. Just do it, and get on with it. Mocking the officials like Rickie did demeans both you and the game. It is the opposite of a rising tide lifting all ships. It’s the opposite of being professional. The game has made you wealthy men, the least you can do is respect the Rules of the game you play. Respect doesn’t have to mean you agree, but at least educate yourself on the reasons WHY a Rule is the way it is. At least have the ability to hold an intelligent conversation about the Rule you dislike.

Post-Script: I’d started writing this shortly after Haotong Li was penalized. I let it sit for awhile, and the Justin Thomas/Rickie Fowler/Adam Schenk stuff pushed me to finish writing it. These opinions reflect only my thoughts, not those of my fellow Rules Geeks, though given their ties to folks at the USGA, R&A, and the referees of the world… I suspect they would at least mostly agree.