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  • Alistair Tait

Golf rules knowledge can be dangerous

The full extent of today’s just saying quote at the bottom of this blog slammed into me eight years ago today like a skulled iron shot plugging into the face of a riveted bunker. That’s when I realised a little rules of golf knowledge can be a dangerous thing.

Tiger Woods missed the cut in the 2013 Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship because he didn’t know the rule about embedded balls. I did, and got hammered for it.

Woods played the first two rounds with Rory McIlory and three-time Abu Dhabi champion Martin Kaymer. In round two, Woods hit his tee shot wide of the fifth fairway into a sandy, scrubby area. Woods called over Kaymer, who was marking his card. After a brief discussion, Woods took a drop and hit his approach shot onto the green.

I was surprised when former European Tour player turned TV commentator Richard Boxall said Woods received a free drop for an embedded ball.

The European Tour allowed relief for embedded balls anywhere through the green. However, I knew there was an exception for balls embedded in sandy areas. Tiger’s ball came to rest on creeping vegetation in a sandy waste area.

Myself and Golf Channel correspondent Rex Hoggard asked European Tour referee Miguel Vidaor about the ruling. He confirmed it was for an embedded ball. Rex carried on walking but I wasn’t fully satisfied and queried Vidaor further.

Vidaor asked me to take him to the spot Woods had hit from, which I did. Vidaor said there was no problem since Woods hadn’t dropped the ball in sand. I said: ‘even though this vegetation is in a sandy waste area?” Vidaor still maintained Woods had done nothing wrong.

I left the scene with my mind at rest only to find out later Vidaor had second thoughts. He consulted chief referee Andy McFee who agreed with my interpretation of the rule. Woods was assessed a two-shot penalty and missed the cut.

I was only doing my job in seeking an explanation – I’m a journalist: it’s my job to ask questions. Many Tiger fans didn’t see it that way. I was subjected to a torrent of abuse via Twitter. Many actually accused me of causing Woods to miss the cut. I didn’t. Tiger’s rules breach was the reason he missed the cut.

I’ve run into problems because of my knowledge of the rules a few times in my life. I thought a fellow club member was going to hit me on one occasion because I told him his nearest point of relief for a ball lying on a cart path was actually in knee high rough, when he wanted to drop it in shorter grass on the either side of the path. I used the line an R&A official once told me to use in similar situations:

“It’s the nearest point of relief, not the nicest point.”

Needless to say, the last six holes of that competition were played in complete silence. Oh, and I felt like a bit of a pariah because I knew the rule.

I don’t know how many times I’ve told playing companions there’s no such thing as “declaring a ball lost” even though the ball is clearly visible 40 yards into the trees. Some even take umbrage, especially when they’ve hit their provisional ball down the middle of the fairway.

However, the torrent of abuse I received on Twitter in the Woods case was scary. Thank goodness for that block button. It came in handy that day. Former Golfweek colleague Hoggard also took a beating online.

I still find it incredulous so many professionals don’t spend more time reading the laws that govern their game. Imagine a lawyer who didn’t know law? Some players are very knowledgeable, but so many would benefit just from spending 10 minutes a day reading the rules. Pretty easy considering all the down time tour pros have on the road in hotel rooms, flights and courtesy cars. They’ll spend hours working on their game but can’t find a few minutes to read the rules.

A better understanding of the rules can save them shots. In my case eight years ago it caused me a great deal of stress.

By the way, Woods would suffer the same penalty nowadays under the new rules of golf effective 1 January 2019. Rule 16-3 Embedded Ball does not allow relief for a ball “embedded in sand in part of a general area that is not cut to fairway height or less.”

#JustSaying: “Golf is the only game in the world in which precise knowledge of the rules can earn one a reputation for bad sportsmanship.” Patrick Campbell


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I remember the Bamberger situation. I'm sure there was no grandstanding on his part, but agree he should have said something before she signed her card. Yes, "In a timely manner" is the key.

Psych: The European Tour used to conduct rules seminars for players but had to stop them because no one was turning up! Crazy for players not to tap into the wealth of knowledge of the rules officials. Some do but most don't care. 10 minutes a day reading the rules and clarifying any with rules officials only to willing to educate would go a long way to extending a player's knowledge.

I passed the R&A Rules of Golf & Refereeing exam and probably made a…


Bill Elliott
Bill Elliott
Jan 22, 2021

Too many rules in golf. I play by the simple 'rule' that if you ever have to ask, then the answer is 'no'. X


Jan 22, 2021

Oh I agree on many points

  1. The R&A run a great level one online referee course- there is no reason why a player should not take time to go through that. In fact I think it should be mandatory that all tour players have to complete and pass that course on a regular basis

  2. Don't admit that you also took the level 2 course either- everyone looks to you for rulings and woe betide you have to tell them their interpretation of a drop is wrong - even best buddies give you very surly looks


Jan 22, 2021

I remember the dust-up over Tiger's drop. Personally I didn't have a problem with it. In fact I've never had a problem with observers seeing something questionable and bringing it to the players or officials attention in a timely manner.

But note the last four words of the paragraph above, " a timely manner". Again, I have no problem with the way you and Rex handled the situation above.

But I had a tremendous problem with Michael Bamberger's late reporting of a wrong drop by Michelle Wie which resulted in her disqualification. He knew at the time it happened, or at least suspected enough to bring it up then. Instead he waited until after Michelle had signed her scorecard. Thus…

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