Tuesday, 21 January 2014

The Rory McIlroy Rules Incident

Caddie, Dave Renwick, advises McIlroy of his breach - Golfchannel.com

It is only the third week of a new golfing year and we already have a major Rules incident involving one of the sport’s highest profile, young stars, Rory McIlroy, who was No.1 in the official world golf rankings less than a year ago.

During last Saturday’s third round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, (Northern) Ireland’s brightest star failed to take full relief from a spectator crosswalk, incurring a penalty of two strokes. He finished the competition in joint second place, so arguably this penalty cost him his first win of the year and approximately $200,000 in prize money, but of course history would have changed had his infraction not been penalised and for all we know he might have had a terrible final round, or even been disqualified in the changed circumstances.

I am linking here to a post-round interview in which Rory handles the stressful situation very well, until the last few seconds, where in my opinion, he lets himself down badly;

Let me clarify exactly what Rory said at the very end of that interview, as it is not too clear;

“Yes, stuff like this is … it’s sort of stupid. There’s a lot of stupid Rules in Golf and this is one of them.”
I am prepared to give Rory the benefit of the doubt here, as it must be difficult to have a microphone thrust in your face at the end of a good round that had suddenly turned sour, but the Rules permitting relief without penalty from immovable obstructions and abnormal ground conditions have been around for a long time, are regularly faced by players at all levels of the game and it is difficult to see how golf could be played without them.

Now for my thoughts on this matter, starting with the Rule that was breached. Rory’s ball had come to rest on a spectator crosswalk that had been defined as ground under repair (GUR) with a white line. Note that the Committee had done this to help the players avoid lies that had been trampled down by spectators, not as a trap to penalise them. He could have chosen to play the ball as it lay, but decided to take relief, under Rule 25-1b. When a player is taking relief from GUR they must first determine the nearest point, not nearer the hole, where there is no interference from the GUR to the lie of their ball, their stance or the area of their intended swing, and then drop the ball within one club-length of that point, not nearer the hole. The dropped ball must come to rest in a position that affords complete relief from the GUR area they are taking relief from. So, why did Rory drop his ball so close to the line that one of his feet was standing on it as he made his stroke? His area of drop was one club-length from the nearest point of relief, which could have taken him several feet away from the line. As his ball came to rest so close to the line that he had to stand on it to make a stroke, he was entitled to re-drop it, without penalty, to take complete relief from the interference. This Rule is there to assist and protect players and not to catch them out. I covered the subject of taking complete relief in this blog.

What about the roles of the two caddies in this incident? In addition to the physical tasks of carrying and cleaning equipment, raking bunkers, repairing divots, attending flagsticks, etc. caddies at the professional end of the game are expected to be able to advise their players on such things as yardages, lines of putt, motivation, relaxation and the Rules. Unfortunately, considering they are usually full-time professionals at their job, very few of them seem to study the Rules enough to be of any benefit to their player in this respect. In an earlier blog, I asked for any caddie amongst my ~10,000 readers to make contact with me and I did not receive one reply. That is not a very scientific survey, but I suspect that it does indicate a lack of interest in the subject by the caddying community. So, where was J.P. Fitzgerald and what was he looking at when Rory made his stroke with one foot on the white GUR line? To be fair to Rory, he has not blamed his caddie in any of the reports that I have seen, but I would be surprised if he did not place some of the blame on him behind the scenes. Of course it was another caddie, Dave Fenwick, who did observe the breach and bring it to Rory’s attention at the end of the round. You may ask why he did not step in before the stroke was made? Well, apparently he was 40 yards ahead of McIlroy when he noticed that his foot was still on the GUR line. He didn’t want to shout back to him as he prepared to make his stroke, nor did he want to approach him immediately after the hole, which might have upset the players for the rest of the round (they were only on their 2nd hole). Why did he mention it at all? Quite rightly, he reasoned that the infraction might have been noticed by someone else (e.g. a course spectator or television viewer) and it may come to light after McIlroy had signed his card, leading to his disqualification. The game would be poorer if caddies who observed Rules violations are encouraged to overlook them. In my opinion, Fenwick handled the situation professionally and properly.

Finally, in answer to those that see this incident as another example of why there should be a Rules official walking with every group in tournament events, I would like to offer a different opinion. One of the problems is that most professional players and their caddies do not have an acceptable knowledge of the Rules of Golf and having someone on hand for every hole played could worsen this situation by absolving them of the responsibility for bothering to learn them. We should not forget that part of Rule 6-1 states;

The player and his caddie are responsible for knowing the Rules.
Also, breaches of the Rules still happen when there is a walking official present, e.g. Tiger’s wrong drop at Augusta last year, and when the official misses something it will likely be them that gets criticised and not the player or their caddie, which is where the real responsibility rests.

My conclusion is that Rory McIlroy has now suffered twice for simple Rules violations (the other time was when he brushed sand from the fringe of the green, also in Abu Dhabi, in 2012), and that he should brush-up his knowledge of the Rules and insist that his caddie does the same. It is not good enough to blame the Rules, which are there to ensure a level playing field for all golfers whatever their ability, which should work to his favour, as one of the best golfers in the world.

Good golfing

Is your Club or Society thinking of ways to improve the Rules knowledge of its members? A Rules Quiz is a great way to achieve this in a fun way. I have done all the work for you with my 3 quizzes; General, Match Play and Juniors. Check out the details at this link.
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CONOR said...

Great blog Barry. you said exactly what I was thinking . you asked the question where was Rorys caddy and what was he doing not good enough at that level. But Rory should know the rules especially a simple rule of relief from GUR. THANKS

Lawrie said...

Great blog Barry, I couldn't agree more.

Anonymous said...

Two comments - Rory was quoted in Scotsman (21 Jan pg 53 col 1) as saying he doesn't have to refer to or keep up to date on the rules of golf because that's what referees are for, "I have better things to do."!!!!

Unless there is more to the Simon Dyson issue than we have been told, is young Rory courting an even more substantial fine and possible suspension if he breaks a rule and signs for a wrong score? Could have happened here if Fenwick hadn't been good enough to let him know. If that is the case would a quiet word with his sponsors get his attention?


Edouard from QUEBEC said...

Hi Barry

I agree with you. At that level, the players should know the basic rules of golf. Also the caddy has a responsability in the matter.

Also Rory should tell us what other rules are stupid!

In my part of the world, the word «stupid» is used to qualify people not for things or rules!

Barry Rhodes said...


I am amazed and even more disappointed if these quotes are accurate. It is akin to bringing the game into disrepute and in my opinion, would justify a severe rebuke from the Tour authorities.

I am not too critical about his breach, as we can all make mistakes and one has to assume that he did not realise that he had transgressed, so there was no reason to impose a fine or suspension for him returning a score card without including the penalty (though he would have been disqualified), but his comments are at best ill-judged.