“Play the course as you find it; play the ball as it lies. If you can’t do either
then play fair. In order to play fair, you need to know the rules of golf.”

Congratulations to Dustin Johnson on his first Major win at The US Open last month although his final round did elicit some controversy involving the application of ‘Rule 18 – Ball at Rest Moved’.

The scenario was: On the 5th green, after reading his par attempt, Dustin made two practice swings very near his ball. Then, whilst in the process of addressing the ball (he had yet not grounded his putter) the ball moved backward. A referee was called over and the situation explained in which Dustin stated that he had not touched the ball (all was confirmed by fellow competitor, Lee Westwood). The official accepted the explanation and indicated that Dustin should play the ball as it lay, without penalty. The incident and ruling was subsequently reviewed by the USGA, prior to the completion of Dustin’s round, and a penalty of onestroke was applied.

I highlighted last month that Rule 18-2b (Ball Moving after Address) had been withdrawn and that a player was no longer automatically deemed to have caused the ball to move.
However, Decision 18-2/0.5* stipulates that “the cause of the ball’s movement has to be assessed” and “all relevant information must be considered” and “the weight of the evidence must be evaluated (Decision 34-3/9).” Relevant considerations may include, but are not limited to:

  • The nature of any actions taken near the ball e.g. practice swing, taking stance etc.;
  • Time elapsed between such actions and the movement of the ball;
  • The lie of the ball before it moved e.g. on a closely-mown area, perched on longer grass etc.
  • The conditions of the ground near the ball e.g. degree of slope, surface irregularities etc.
  • Wind, rain and other weather conditions;

If the weight of evidence indicates that it is more likely than not that the player caused the ball to move, even though the conclusion is not free from doubt, the player incurs a one-stroke penalty under Rule 18-2 and the ball must be replaced. Otherwise, the player incurs no penalty and the ball is played as it lies unless some other Rule applies (e.g. Rule 18-1).

Decision 18-2/0.5 also provides this example where the weight of the evidence would indicate that the player did not cause the movement:

  • A player’s ball lies on an upslope in a closelymown area. He makes a practice swing, but does so some distance from the ball as he is concerned that the ball may move. He
    carefully take his stance but does not ground his club. Prior to making his backswing for the stroke, the ball moves. As the ball did not move while the player made the practice swing or took his stance, it is more likely than not that other factors (i.e. the ball’s lie on an upslope) caused the ball to move.

The evidence in this incident i.e. no outside agency interference, no adverse weather at the time, his practice swings were very close to the ball, there was no significant (or any) time lapse between his actions and the ball moving and lastly, that Dustin was not
able to offer a plausible alternative reason for the ball moving; makes it clear that Dustin’s actions could have caused the ball to move and therefore that the application of a one-stroke penalty was correct.

The lack of ‘assessment’ on the part of the official who initially interacted with Dustin and the manner in which the USGA managed the matter is a debate for another day.

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