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Experts Explain: Wrong Kind Of Sandy

Posted: 3/6/2012

Why was Rory McIlroy penalized two strokes at the Abu Dhabi Championship for brushing away and removing sand in his line of play?

During the second round of this year’s Abu Dhabi Championship, Rory McIlroy, the 2011 U.S. Open champion and now the No. 1 player in the Official World Golf Ranking, was penalized two strokes for brushing away and removing sand on his line of play. The incident was astutely noticed by fellow-competitor Luke Donald, who appropriately pointed out the infraction, protecting the field and perhaps preventing McIlroy from signing for a wrong score and being disqualified.

One of the great principles of the Rules of Golf is to play the course as you find it. Sand and soil are part of the ground over which the game of golf is played, and the player must normally accept the ground on which his ball lies. However, the putting green is a special place on the course where certain specific Rules apply. This is borne out by the fact that the putting green has its own Rule (16), and by looking more closely at other Rules.

According to Rule 13-2, there are certain areas the player cannot improve or allow to be improved, those being 1) the position or lie of his ball; 2) his area of intended stance or swing; 3) his line of play or reasonable extension of that line beyond the hole; and 4) the area in which he is to drop or place a ball.

This Rule prohibits certain actions in relation to these areas, including removing or pressing down sand, loose soil, replaced divots or other cut turf placed in position. This may lead you to ask, “I thought I was allowed to remove sand, loose soil, leaves, grass clippings, and other such items from my line on the putting green?”

In fact, this is correct. The last bullet point in Rule 13-2 provides that if sand or loose soil is removed from the putting green, the player does not incur a penalty. This is the case, regardless of whether the ball lies on or off the putting green. Additionally, the Rule fits nicely with the definition of loose impediments, which says that while natural objects are loose impediments when lying anywhere, sand and loose soil are only loose impediments when they lie on the putting green.

Rule 23-1 allows the player to remove any loose impediment when his ball lies through the green, but since sand is not a loose impediment off the putting green, it cannot be removed when it lies off the putting green if doing so improves any of the areas mentioned in Rule 13-2.  Because McIlroy gained a potential advantage by removing the sand off the putting green, he was in breach of Rule 13-2. 


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