The 18 biggest rules issues of 2021 … so far

By Christopher Powers

Normally, a roundup of rules issues needs at least a full season to marinate. Just four months into 2021, however, we’ve already got enough infractions to compile a good old fashioned list.

While they can sometimes be nauseating to report on and discuss, there is no question that the people dig rules mix-ups. They are often controversial and/or confrontational, and players not named Patrick Reed tend to get the benefit of the doubt given the absurdity of many of golf’s archaic rules. Believe it or not, Reed only appears once on this list, and he may have later been vindicated by one of the sport’s golden boys running into a similar situation in the same tournament, on the same day.

Below you’ll find a chronological list of the biggest rules issues of 2021, so far, including Reed, Rory (?!) and everything in between.

PGA Tour puts in internal out-of-bounds on 18th at Waialae

With no fans, and thus no grandstands, at the 2021 Sony Open, players seemingly had the option to pipe a drive down the 10th fairway when playing Waialae Country Club’s par-5 18th, which would have left them with an unobstructed short iron shot into the green. The PGA Tour made sure that did not happen by putting in internal out-of-bounds stakes left of the fairway, forcing players to have to play the hole the way it was intended to be played.

• • •

Patrick Reed takes embedded ball relief on Saturday at Torrey Pines

If you needed any proof that rules controversies sell, look no further than the video the PGA Tour posted of Reed taking relief before asking for a rules official to take a look during the third round of the Farmers Insurance Open. Yep, 1.3 million views. New high score?

Naturally, because of Reed’s history, this lit Golf Twitter aflame, but Reed was quickly absolved of any wrongdoing and apparently was within his rights to lift the ball without needing a ruling first. It helped that Rory McIlroy, one of the most likable players on the planet, found himself in an identical situation on the very same day.

• • •

Rory McIlroy takes embedded ball relief on Saturday at Torrey Pines

 As you can see, McIlroy did the same thing as Reed on No. 18, notifying his partners he believed it was embedded and lifting it without a rules official weighing in first, then taking relief. Also like Reed’s ball, it did appear to bounce, making it very hard to believe it was truly embedded after bouncing. Turns out, a volunteer had actually stepped on McIlroy’s ball, information that didn’t come to light until days later. At any rate, neither Reed nor Rory were penalized, making the whole situation seem like a whole lot of nothing, which didn’t make it any less entertaining.

• • •

Matthew Wolff assessed retroactive penalty at The American Express


Sean M. Haffey

Starting in 2018, television viewers were no longer allowed to call in rules infractions, a change welcomed by just about everyone except tattle tales. However, rules officials are still allowed to review video evidence of a potential penalty, which is exactly what happened to Matthew Wolff at The American Express in late January. After opening with 71 and then shooting a second-round 67, Wolff was notified that he had unknowingly committed an infraction on the first hole of his first round. During his backswing on his approach shot out of the left rough, Wolff’s ball moved, which was originally determined not to be a penalty since he was not responsible for it moving. Video evidence later showed that he was, and he was hit with a one-stroke penalty, but no disqualification for signing an incorrect card.

• • •

Maverick McNealy’s ball moves at address on Saturday at Pebble Beach

An early-round flurry of birdies on Saturday at Pebble Beach saw California native Maverick McNealy quickly vault into contention. Then, at the par-3 fifth, he pulled his tee shot left of the green and when he went to address his second shot, the ball moved forward, into a worse lie than its original spot. Unfortunately, you don’t get points for that, and McNealy was hit with a frustrating one-stroke penalty and had to re-create his initial lie.

 To McNealy’s credit, he fought all the way back to tie for second come Sunday, his best finish in his nascent PGA Tour career. Luckily, he missed out on a playoff by two shots, not one.

• • •

Russell Knox gets McNealy’d on Sunday at Pebble Beach


Less than 24 hours after McNealy was penalized for violating Rule 9-4, Russell Knox was hit with the same one-stroke penalty while also in contention. In the first fairway, the Scotsman had grounded his club, then picked it up and waggled it. When he went to ground it again, he noticed the ball roll slightly. He explained the situation to a rules official, and implied that the ball had moved while his club was in the air, which would mean he didn’t cause it to move. So, no penalty. Four holes later, though, Knox was informed that after review, it was deemed that he had caused it to move, a one-stroke penalty, just like McNealy’s:

Amazingly, Knox and McNealy’s golf balls probably did not move half of an inch, combined. And yet it each cost them a stroke while in serious contention of a PGA Tour event. And we wonder why people are so turned off by the Rules of Golf.

• • •

Matthew Wolff’s practice-stroke gaffe at the WGC-Concession

On Thursday at the WGC-Workday, Matthew Wolff’s opening round from hell somehow took an extra-messy turn when, during a practice stroke on a putting green, Wolff made contact with his golf ball. Fortunately for him, under new Rule 13-1d(1), Wolff was not given a penalty because he did not intend to make contact with the ball. Not that it would have mattered, as he went on to shoot an 11-over 83 and withdrew.

• • •

Annika Sorenstam gets penalised for incorrect ruling, still makes cut at Gainbridge LPGA


In her first start since 2008, Annika Sorenstam was reminded how cruel the Rules of Golf often can be. On the fifth hole of her first round, Sorenstam’s drive came to rest near a fence down the left side. The rules official on hand determined the ball to be in bounds, and Sorenstam believed she had a shot if she was allowed to open a gate that was part of the fence. The rules official said she was not, and Sorenstam was forced to take an unplayable and made triple bogey. The following day, that ruling was determined to be an incorrect one, though it was too late for the Hall of Famer to change her score. Even with a three-over 75 in her first round, though, the Swede made the cut.

• • •

Robert Gamez fails to sign his scorecard at Bay Hill, gets disqualified


Stacy Revere

Thirty-one years after his epic, walk-off hole-out victory at Bay Hill, Robert Gamez shot the worst score of his career at the 2021 Arnold Palmer Invitational during Friday’s second round. His 20-over 92 featured one triple bogey and five double bogeys, and was 13 shots worse than his opening-round 79. However, it didn’t count as an official round, as Gamez failed to sign his scorecard and was disqualified.

• • •

PGA Tour foils Bryson DeChambeau’s big plan at the Players

Many of Bryson DeChambeau’s grandiose plans often do come to fruition, but sometimes he’s just saying things to say them. At the Players Championship in March, DeChambeau saying he thought about driving it down the ninth hole from the 18th tee was very likely the latter. But the PGA Tour took action anyway, putting in internal out of bounds left of the lake at 18 to stop DeChambeau from getting too aggressive.

• • •

Viktor Hovland gets two-shot penalty thanks to ... his mother?


Mike Ehrmann

On Thursday at the Players Championship, on the par-4 15th at TPC Sawgrass, Viktor Hovland moved his ball mark on the green so it would be out of the putting line of one of his playing competitors. Hovland proceeded to move it back—or at least he thought he did—finished out the hole and wound up signing for a two-under 70. But during a phone conversation with his mother after the round, she asked him if he’d be penalized for what happened at the 15th green. He had no idea what she was talking about, only to discover that when he moved his mark back, he did so in the wrong direction and not back to its original spot, violating Rule 14-7. Moms do, indeed, know best, even when they are messing with your livelihood (Hovland added two shots to his Thursday score and eventually went on to miss the cut).

• • •

Marshal runs over Bubba Watson’s ball at the Players

On the same day Hovland’s mom called a penalty on him, Bubba Watson got shafted by a marshal at TPC Sawgrass. According to Watson’s caddie, Ted Scott, a marshal was moving his cart when he ran over Watson’s ball. After that, the ball was never found, and Scott said on Twitter that someone claimed they had later dug it up and found it. Whoops, too late. Watson took a triple bogey on the hole with the lost ball penalty and went on to miss the cut.

• • •

In Gee Chun disqualified from Kia Classic for failing to sign her scorecard

Often times, failure to sign a scorecard usually indicates a player shot a poor round (see Robert Gamez). That was hardly the case for In Gee Chun at the Kia Classic, where she opened with rounds of 68 and 71 to put herself in a tie for fourth after 36 holes. However, she was DQ’d before her weekend even began when officials noticed Chun had never signed her second-round scorecard. Ouch.

• • •

Obscure rule stumps announcers in Scheffler-Kuchar match at WGC-Dell Match Play


This was less of a rules infraction situation and more of a using the rules of match-play situation by Scottie Scheffler and Matt Kuchar at Austin Country Club. During their semifinal match, Scheffler had found the water at the 12th hole, meaning he’d have to drop from 77 yards away. Kuchar found the green and had close to 90 feet left for eagle. Things got strange from there, as Kuchar wound up playing his ball first, because by rule Scheffler would be allowed to play his ball at the bottom of the lake if he wanted, and his ball was closer despite it being under water. Where Scheffler’s ball lied after his drop was irrelevant in this situation. So Kuchar went first and wound up winning the hole. Amazingly, a similar situation occurred at the next hole when Scheffler found the water again. Nick Faldo, on the call at the time, said he’d never known the rule in his 40-plus years as a professional.

• • •

Abraham Ancer unknowingly touches sand at the Masters, get penalized

Ancer became the latest to get hit with a penalty after a post-round, video review on Thursday at the Masters. At the 15th hole, Ancer had grazed the sand with his wedge during his backswing in a greenside bunker. Ancer tweeted out a video clip of the infraction after the round, and it was viewed nearly 3 million times, likely by people trying to see at what point he actually grazes the sand:

Two strokes … for that. Rules, baby!

• • •

Si Woo Kim’s ball hangs on the lip a little too long at the RBC Heritage

We’ve seen it hundreds of times before—a pro’s ball hangs on the lip … and hangs … and hangs some more … never dropping and forcing them to kick in a zero-incher. This exact situation happened to Si Woo Kim on Saturday at Harbour Town’s par-4 third. Kim rolled his birdie putt from off the green and it sat on the lip, so he waited, and waited, and seriously waited some more, only for the ball to actually drop in the hole for birdie. Turns out, this was no cause for celebration, as a rules official came in and informed Kim he had waited well past the allotted 10 seconds—one minute and 10 seconds, to be exact. Kim didn’t actually tap in for par, but his score was changed from birdie to par for the infraction.

• • •

Yani Tseng fails to sign scorecard, gets DQ’d at Hugel-Air Premia LA Open


The former World No. 1’s 2021 struggles continued at Wilshire Country Club, where she was disqualified after just one round for failure to sign her scorecard. The LPGA was not able to confirm Tseng’s official score, but it was in the 80s.

• • •

Jimmy Walker gets penalty for being late for tee time

As Jimmy Walker references in his Instgram post, he was involved in an unusual Rules situation regarding his tee time. Walker was to tee off on the first hole at 7:39 a.m. on Friday for his second round. He was on the range getting ready for the round when a rules official told him he had one minute to get to the tee. Exactly why Walker was running late wasn’t clear. He subsequently got to the tee late for his time and was assessed a two-shot penalty under Rule 5.3a. “Thirty years in tourney golf and that’s a first,” Walker notes in his Instagram post.


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