OUR EXPERTS EXPLAIN
Our Experts Explain: Adjustment Penalties December 11, 2015 | Far Hills, N.J. By Joe Foley, USGA

In match play, certain penalties can lead to the loss of a hole, or an adjustment of match status, instead of strokes. (USGA/Chris Keane)

The most frequently incurred penalties in the Rules of Golf are one stroke. That penalty is used in both match play and stroke play for relief from water hazards, unplayable balls, balls lost or out of bounds, as well as for a number of accidental occurrences, such as when players cause their ball to move or when their ball strikes themselves or their equipment after a stroke is made. The next most frequently incurred penalties provided by the Rules are referred to as general penalties: loss of hole in match play and two strokes in stroke play. These penalties, along with the penalty of disqualification, handle most situations that come up during a round of golf satisfactorily. However, there are a few Rules of Golf and optional conditions of competition that apply a penalty differently from the three noted above.

At the 2015 Presidents Cup, Phil Mickelson and Zach Johnson were involved in a breach of a condition of competition that involved one of these different penalties in their four-ball match with Adam Scott and Jason Day. The condition of competition breached by Mickelson, the “one ball” condition, imposed what is called an “adjustment to the state of the match” penalty on the four-ball side that committed the error. 

The most well-known Rule of Golf that uses this adjustment to the state of the match penalty is the 14-club Rule (Rule 4-4a). Here is an example of how this Rule breach is discovered and how the penalty is applied:

In a four-ball match with Players A-B competing against Players C-D, on the fifth hole, Player C discovers that he has had 15 clubs in his bag since the start of the round. After making the discovery and before making another stroke, Player C is required by the Rules to notify an opponent (either Player A or B) of his mistake, declare one of his clubs out of play for the remainder of the round, and then play out the remainder of the fifth hole. Once the hole is completed, the side must deduct two holes from the number of holes it is either up or down in the match against Players A-B through the first five holes (Rule 31-6).

A two-hole adjustment is the maximum penalty assessed under any Rule or Condition with an adjustment penalty. The reason two “loss-of-hole penalties” are not assessed is because of the impracticality of trying to determine on which two of the first five holes such penalties should be applied. Additionally, assessing loss-of-hole penalties on holes that Players C-D had lost would mean they incurred no penalty, while assessing loss-of-hole penalties on holes they had won would result in a four-hole swing in the status of the match. Alternatively, using an adjustment to the state of the match penalty and accepting the results of the holes played up to and including the hole on which the discovery of the breach is made eliminates this inconsistency. In this example, by deducting two holes from the state of the match, the side in breach is always affected, and it is affected more proportionally and equally than would be done through the use of the more common loss-of-hole penalty.

In the above example, Players C-D are subject to this maximum adjustment because Player C had been in breach of the Rule for more than one hole (for five holes, in fact). Had Player C discovered his error before starting the second hole, he would have had to inform Players A-B of his error before playing another stroke, declare the extra club out of play, complete the first hole and side C-D would have deducted one hole from the number of holes they were either up or down in the match after the first hole.

At the Presidents Cup, Mickelson put a different type of ball into play from the seventh tee than the type he had been using during the round until that point, thereby breaching the one-ball condition (Appendix I; Part C; Item 1c). In this case, Mickelson’s mistake did not extend over several holes – his breach and discovery all took place on the seventh hole of the match. Mickelson and Johnson were all square as they played the seventh hole, lost that hole to go 1 down, and after the adjustment to the state of the match penalty was applied, they were 2 down.

While it may seem simpler to apply a loss-of-hole penalty when the breach and discovery all take place on the same hole, the adjustment to the state of the match penalty is used in all cases to maintain consistency, no matter how long the side (or player) may have been in breach of the Rule.

Joe Foley is the manager for Rules outreach and programming for the USGA. Email him at jfoley@usga.org.