In two recent PGA Tour events, two prominent players suddenly found themselves without one of the clubs they had at the beginning of their stipulated rounds. Rory McIlroy lost a 3-iron with a splash at the WGC Cadillac-Championship and Ernie Els broke a club against a tree with a distinctive ping at the Valspar Championship. While both Els and McIlroy were abruptly short one club, that’s where the similarities between their situations end as far as the Rules of Golf are concerned.
Since Els broke his club in playing a stroke, the club was considered damaged in the “normal course of play” – see Decision 4-3/1. Therefore, he was able to proceed in accordance with Rule 4-3a (Damage in Normal Course of Play). This Rule allowed him a few options: he could have continued to use the club in its damaged state for the remainder of the stipulated round; he could have repaired it himself; or he could have had the club repaired by someone else. If he chose either of the last two options, the act of repair could not unduly delay play.
Additionally, Els was permitted to replace the club under Rule 4-3(iii). A player may only replace a damaged club if the damage occurred in the normal course of play and resulted in the club being unfit for play. The Note to Rule 4-3a states, “A club is unfit for play if it is substantially damaged, e.g., the shaft is dented, significantly bent or breaks into pieces; the clubhead becomes loose, detached or significantly deformed; or the grip becomes loose. A club is not unfit for play solely because the club’s lie or loft has been altered, or the clubhead is scratched.” Els’ club met this standard since the shaft of the club broke into two pieces.
If he decided to replace the club, Els could not have done so by borrowing any club selected for play by any other person playing on the course or by assembling components carried by or for him during the stipulated round. Further, the act of replacement could not unduly delay play.
McIlroy, on the other hand, was not able to proceed under Rule 4-3 as his club was not damaged in the normal course of play. The 3-iron he flung into the pond at Trump National Doral was lost, and a lost club is not one which has become unfit for play in the normal course of play – see Decision 4-3/10. Therefore, under Rule 4-4a (Selection and Addition of Clubs), if he had started the round with the maximum of 14 clubs, he was not permitted to replace the club.
Kathryn Belanger is a USGA Rules of Golf associate. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.