Golf Rules: Tiger and the “Oscillating” Ball

Tiger Woods was in a rules dispute recently at the BMW Championship outside of Chicago.  Woods pushed his opening drive of the second round into the trees and the ball came to rest amidst fallen leaves and twigs.  In the process of moving some of the debris, his ball moved.  He said he saw it move but he believed it merely oscillated (did not change position), went on to hit his ball and then after the round was informed of a two-stroke penalty, as footage from PGA Tour Entertainment clearly showed the ball changing position as he moved some debris.

What are the golf rules?

Just like on the putting green, if you cause your ball to move other than during the process of making a stroke, it’s a one-stroke penalty.  (USGA Rule 18-2(a))  If you fail to return the ball to it’s original place and proceed to make your stroke anyway, it is a two-stroke penalty.  (USGA Rule 18)  These penalties are not additive, the two-stroke penalty for hitting a ball from the wrong place supersedes the penalty for causing the ball to move.

We see two reasons this became a bigger issue than it really should have been.  First, it’s Tiger and everything with Tiger is magnified for better or worse.  And everything that Tiger does on the course is being filmed by someone, and that creates more opportunities for this sort of thing to come to light.  Give Tiger the benefit of the doubt that during the round he didn’t think the ball changed positions.   He was correctly assessed the two-stroke penalty.  Is it unfair that he’s under a bigger microscope than other players?  Yes.  But the rules don’t care about that.

The second reason it’s a bigger deal than it should have been is that he continued to dispute it after he was shown the film of the ball moving.  If he had seen it, accepted his penalty and explained to the press that he didn’t think it moved when he played it but clearly it did move, it would have blown over.   However, he’s a real human with real emotions and frustrations.  He knows that it is more likely that PGA Tour Entertainment (or any camera crew) is more likely to be watching his every move rather than, say, Kevin Stadler or even Jim Furyk, and Woods is a highly competitive person.  Should he have handled it differently?  Sure.  Move on.

Here’s an additional question.  What if Tiger had seen his ball move and wanted to replace his ball and taken the one-stroke penalty, how would he have done that?  The ball’s original position was lying on top of small leaves and twigs and the ball moved a very small amount.  The rules explain that the player must recreate the lie as similar as possible to the original lie and within one-club length of the original lie, but it would have been unlikely that he could have recreated a more similar lie than the lie he had when he ultimately took his stroke.  (USGA Rule 20-3(b))

Golf can be cruel sometimes.

USGA Rules 18, 18-2(a), 20-3(b)


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