Which rules infractions are bad and which are REALLY bad? A regular golfer's ranking

Joel Beall
Golf Digest

Whoever said "The rules are meant to be broken" must have been a golfer. The new season has seen a rash of violations across the sport, from the seemingly innocent to the absurd to the egregious. One in particular—Sergio Garcia's behavior at the Saudi International—even received calls for a months-long suspension. A matter that begs the question: what is the worst infraction to the Rules of Golf?

It's a question that has divergent answers at times for professional and amateurs. Because while most golfers, no matter their playing status, hold themselves accountable, let's be real: in some cases, the rules...well, are made to be broken. Moving a ball from a fairway divot or off a tree root, treating out-of-bounds stakes as a penalty area, allowing a free drop when fall leaves cover the course: these are common amateur exceptions not afforded to professionals. Moreover, some rules simply aren't practically applicable to amateurs, like the one-ball condition or getting relief from grandstands.

Most importantly, despite the rules receiving an update, many of the game's laws and statutes are not judicial, failing to differentiate whether a penalty was breaking the spirit of the game or was simply a mindless mistake.

Scroll to continue with content
Ad

So for our exercise, the lens was through a normal weekend match with your buddies. What rule breaks should be brushed aside without second thought, chalked up as gaffes, and what offenses warrant bringing the hammer down? With that spectrum in mind, here is our highly subjective ranking of the worst rules infractions in golf:

WAIT, THIS IS A PENALTY?

Yes, these are technically breaches of the rules. But as long as your opponent isn't intentionally breaking each without regard to the competition, let these go.

Infraction in Question: Caddie alignment

Penalty: Two strokes; loss of hole in match play.

Recent Example: Haotong Li at Dubai Desert Classic, Denny McCarthy at Phoenix Open.

But is it really that bad? Unequivocally no. The pros think this rule is a joke. Shame on you for entertaining the thought of enforcing this.

Infraction in Question: Asking for advice

Penalty: Two strokes; loss of hole in match play.

Recent Example: Ronnie Black received advice from his wife at the 2010 Toshiba Classic. However, it was deemed the counsel was unsolicited, so Black was not hit with a penalty.

But is it really that bad? Mildly annoying, but certainly not worth a penalty. A simple reminder is all that’s needed.

Infraction in Question: 15+ clubs in the bag

Penalty: Two strokes for each hole, maximum penalty of four strokes.

Recent Example: Keegan Bradley at the 2016 Waste Management Phoenix Open, although the most famous is case is Ian Woosnam at the 2001 Open. The former Masters champ began the final day in a tie for the lead, but realized on the second hole his caddie had left another driver in his bag. Woosie would lose the claret jug by four shots.

But is it really that bad? Barely a blip on the radar. Identify what club qualifies as the 15th and agree that it won't be used for the rest of the round (but if it's already been used, that club has to stay among the 14). It's worth noting if you have 14 clubs and find a lost club during a round, it's OK to keep it in your bag. Just don't use it.

Infraction in Question: Playing ball outside teeing area

Penalty: Two-shot penalty; if hole is finished, disqualification.

Recent Example: Nothing on the major tours, and while this isn't apples-to-apples, 12 groups at the 2018 Oregon High School State Finals were disqualified for playing from the wrong tee.

But is it really that bad? This primarily deals with those teeing ahead of the markers. And the answer is a big N-O. If they really think that extra inch is going to make a difference, bless their hearts.

Infraction in Question: Playing out of order

Penalty: No stroke play penalty; opponent can cancel shot in match play.

Recent Example: Rory Sabbatini racing ahead of Ben Crane at the 2005 Booz Allen Classic.

But is it really that bad? Mostly not; the USGA even added language on this rule in order to encourage faster pace. One caveat: we're all for speedy play, but if you feel like an opponent is purposefully playing out of turn to throw your game off rhythm, speak up. Especially if it's in match play.

YOU REALLY SHOULDN'T

Okay, so what your opponent did was not cool. In that same breath, it wasn't a major infraction, and they likely didn't have villainous intentions in mind. Each of these rules merit a discussion, but probably not a penalty.

Infraction in Question: Intentionally grounding club in bunker

Penalty: Two-stroke penalty; loss of hole in match play.

Recent Example: Lucas Herbert was caught improving his lie in the sand something fierce at the Dubai Desert Classic.

But is it really that bad? Na, mostly a victimless crime. Unless it's as grievous as Herbert, let it go. Accidents happen, and hitting out of the sand is a penalty in itself.

Infraction in Question: Replacing ball in wrong spot

Penalty: Two shots.

Recent Example: Oh man, don't make us show it. Please...
(Silence)
Fine:

<cite class="credit">Jeff Gross</cite>
Jeff Gross

But is it really that bad? Eh. It happens once, hold your tongue. But if this becomes a recurring theme throughout the round, or the repositions are abhorrent, call that nonsense out.

Infraction in Question: Intentionally taking improper relief

Penalty: Two strokes.

Recent Example: Joel Dahmen accused Sung Kang of cheating last summer when Kang took a drop from a hazard, closer to the hole than Dahmen believed it should be. Kang was ultimately not charged with a penalty.

But is it really that bad? Depends on the drop spot in question. Grant some leniency; we're even okay with allowing an opponent to drop on the other side of a penalty area to keep things moving. Conversely, if it's a matter like Kang's—Dahmen argued until he was blue because he believed Kang was 150 yards from where he should have dropped—don't be afraid to stand your ground.

Infraction in Question: Time limit for lost ball

Penalty: After three minutes, ball is considered lost.

Recent Example: Ian Poulter at 2017 PGA Championship.

But is it really that bad? Sneakily, yes, in the sense the player has no regard for holding up play. We've all played with a person who can't come to grips with the disappearance of their ball, and this could be especially tough if the offending party didn't hit a provisional. Now, the new rule has changed the search time from five minutes to three to speed up play, but we're okay still giving the previous five. Additionally, you shouldn't have a stopwatch out, and you better be in the search party for his ball. But after five minutes let it be known the ball is officially "lost" and get things moving.

Infraction in Question: Breach of etiquette.

Penalty: Disqualification.

Recent Example: See Garcia, Sergio.

But is it really that bad? This is the biggest case-by-case example of the bunch. For a few cuss words are expected. A club slam can be cathartic. Even if the behavior is a little off-putting, try not to judge. But an outburst that would make Tommy Bolt blush should not be tolerated. It takes some stones and might lead to a confrontation, yet if a player is destroying the course or causing others to be extremely uncomfortable, tell that knucklehead to knock it off or face the wrath of the club pro.

SHAME ON YOU

No ambiguity here. Someone messed up, and someone's got to pay.

Infraction in Question: Assuming a putt will be conceded

Penalty: Loss of hole in match play.

Recent Example: Suzann Pettersen at the 2015 Solheim Cup.

But is it really that bad? This is tough. Most—emphasis on "most"—golfers won't pick-up a putt unless they're already been granted it, or it's so close (inside a foot) that it's a safe assumption. We don't advocate pulling a Pettersen, but if an opponent attempts to grab anything without permission, let your feelings known. And if they've already picked up, tell them to put it back and putt. They will be upset, but by the letter of the law they have lost the hole, so if anything your reprieve is an act of generosity.

Infraction in Question: Intentionally hitting wrong ball

Penalty: Two strokes, or disqualification if not caught before teeing off next hole. Loss of hole in match.

Famous Example: Too many to count; Dustin Johnson last notable offender. Although there's a rumor a certain Hall of Famer won an Open playing the wrong ball.

But is it really that bad? Yes. There's the chance this is innocuous, that the ball was buried in rough in the vicinity of where the previous shot appeared to land (although the new rules are generous in allowing a competitor to lift and identify his ball). Unfortunately, there's not often the case, which is why it's ranked so high. Don't have to go as far as disqualification (even if you're the one that catches the wrong ball), and if in your estimation you feel it was an honest mistake, grant them clemency. But if they were clearly trying to get away with it, enforce the penalty.

Infraction in Question: Incorrect scorecard

Penalty: If signing for a higher score, that's the new score. If signing lower, disqualification.
Recent Example: Ricky Barnes at the 2018 Byron Nelson...but c'mon, only one man is associated with this rule.
But is it really that bad? Sure is. This sounds cold, but the infraction can be distilled to two things: A player can't count, or they cheated. Whatever the answer, the response remains the same: DQ.

Infraction in Question: Improving your lie

Penalty: Two strokes, loss of hole in match play.
Recent Example: Phil Mickelson tapping down grass in front of the tee box at the Greenbrier.
But is it really that bad? Is it ever. How severe is breaking this rule? Gary Player's reputation was damaged after Tom Watson accused him of this at the Skins Game. That severe. For the record, this excludes rolling your ball out of a fairway divot or moving it off a tree root (both of which should be declared before taking, by the way). We're talking about instances like stomping the rough behind your ball, or kicking it to a more manageable position, which no one should tolerate.

Infraction in Question: Lying about score

Penalty: Disqualification.
Recent Example: Not recent...but one of the more famous examples, from a personality still a part of the game.
But is it really that bad? There's no coming back from this. Forget the match at hand; knowing someone intentionally fudged their score can destroy reputations and relationships. Rules are made to be broken, yes, but some sins are unforgivable.

Introducing Golf Digest All Access, a new way to improve

WATCH: GOLF DIGEST VIDEOS

See the video.

What to Read Next