The Ruling That Rocked Golf: Tiger's Loose-Impediment At '99 Phoenix Open

Marking the 10th anniversary of the most famous incident
in Rules of Golf history

January 21, 2009

By Wendy Uzelac

Often, those of us answering Rules of Golf questions at the United States Golf Association are asked, "What has been the most talked-about incident you have had to deal with in the department over the years?" Many jump to the conclusion that it was Dr. Trey Holland's incorrect ruling given to Ernie Els during the 1994 U.S. Open at Oakmont Country Club. While that received a lot of press, it was not the ruling that filled up our e-mail inboxes or made the USGA phones ring at a record pace.


It's hard to believe that Jan. 31 is the 10th anniversary of the most discussed and commented on ruling ever handled by the USGA's Rules Department: Tiger Woods and his infamous "loose impediment" during the 1999 Phoenix Open.

Here's a quick recap for those who may not remember the incident, which occurred during the final round of the PGA Tour event held at the TPC at Scottsdale's Stadium Course: Playing the par-five 13th hole, Tiger hit his tee shot to the left of the fairway, well in-bounds but in the desert. His ball came to rest near a boulder that would interfere with his swing toward the green.

After surveying his situation, Tiger asked Rules Official Orlando Pope if the boulder was considered a loose impediment. Though the boulder was the size of a large steamer trunk and estimated to weigh nearly a ton, Pope correctly informed Tiger that, yes, this boulder is considered a loose impediment under the Rules of Golf. Tiger then asked members of his gallery if they would assist him in moving this rather large loose impediment. After much heaving, pushing and finally cheers, the boulder was moved out of Tiger's way.

With a clear shot, Tiger went for the green, made a birdie 4 but ended the tournament three shots behind Rocco Mediate.

The key to Tiger's situation (as with most rules issues) is the definition of loose impediments. Here's what the Rules of Golf say, as interpreted and maintained by the USGA and The R&A:

"Loose impediments" are natural objects including:

  • stones, leaves, twigs, branches and the like,
  • dung, and
  • worms, insects and the like, and the casts and heaps made by them,

provided they are not:

  • fixed or growing,
  • solidly embedded, or
  • adhering to the ball.

Sand and loose soil are loose impediments on the putting green, but not elsewhere.

Snow and natural ice, other than frost, are either casual water or loose impediments, at the option of the player.

Dew and frost are not loose impediments.

Tiger's boulder was a large natural stone that was not solidly embedded, thus fulfilling the requirement of the definition of loose impediments.

Tiger was allowed relief from this defined loose impediment under the "Loose Impediment" Rule. This rule allows a loose impediment to be removed without penalty except if the player's ball and the loose impediment are in or touching the same hazard. Since neither the ball nor the boulder was in a hazard, Tiger was allowed to move it.

Sometimes the rules need some clarification. We call these clarifications Decisions on the Rules of Golf. There are two important decisions under the Loose Impediment Rule (Rule 23) relating to Tiger's situation. The first one is Decision 23-1/2 which is appropriately titled "Large Stone Removable Only with Much Effort." This decision states that stones that are not solidly embedded can be of any size and still be considered a loose impediment. As long as it can be removed without unduly delaying play, the player may remove it.

Which then leads us to Decision 23-1/3, which asks the question: "May spectators, caddies, fellow-competitors, etc., assist a player in removing a large loose impediment?" The answer is "Yes."

These decisions were in the book long before Tiger's situation occurred. (In fact, Decision 23-1/3 derives from an incident that took place a half-century ago in England, in an alternate-shot tournament. The loose impediment was a felled tree, which a player alone could not move.) Regardless, once the rules official correctly gave Tiger his ruling, our phones started to ring -- and ring and ring. Those phones still ring today, 10 years later, with people asking about this incident. We like to view this incident as a great learning opportunity for everyone who loves to play the game of golf – and play by the Rules of Golf.

As for the boulder; it was removed from its original location on the left side of the 13th hole for a time after the tournament but has since been replaced to its original spot. A plaque has been placed on it to commemorate the ruling.

So though Tiger Woods won't be in the field when the FBR Open begins play on Jan. 31, the boulder certainly will. Happy Anniversary to one of our favorite rules incidents!

Are you interested in attending a PGA/USGA Workshop? Click here for a schedule of Rules Workshops that have availability now through March.

Wendy Uzelac is Director, Rules Education Projects. If you have a question regarding the Rules of Golf, call (908) 234-2300, or click here to send your query via e-mail.





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