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Experts Explain: Playing From A Wrong Place

Posted: 5/30/2012

Why was Zach Johnson penalized two strokes on the 18th green at Colonial at this past weekend's PGA Tour event?

On the 18th hole of the final round of the Crown Plaza Invitational at Colonial, Zach Johnson’s third shot came to rest 5 feet from the hole, where he marked the location of the ball before lifting it. His ball had come to rest on the line of putt of his fellow-competitor, Jason Dufner.  Dufner asked Johnson to move his ball-marker to the side, which he did by spanning one club-head length over and relocating his ball-marker.

After Dufner putted, Johnson placed his ball in front of his ball-marker and holed his putt for an apparent three-shot victory.  As he was heading to the scoring area, CBS announcer Peter Kostis asked Johnson if he had returned his ball-marker to its original location before putting.  Johnson realized he had not done so.

Rule 16-1b (The Putting Green; Lifting and Cleaning Ball), allowed Johnson to lift his ball without penalty when it was on the putting green.  Rule 20-1 (Relief Situations and Procedure; Lifting and Marking) requires a ball that must be replaced to have its position marked before it is lifted.  The Note to Rule 20-1 says that if the ball-marker interferes with another player’s play, it should be placed one or more clubhead-lengths to the side.  In order to replace the ball when this has been done, the procedure must be reversed.

When Johnson placed his ball in front of his marker without moving the marker back to its original position and putted, he was in breach of Rule 20-7c (Playing from Wrong Place; Stroke Play).  The penalty for playing from a wrong place in stroke play is two strokes and no other correction is required unless the breach is serious.  Johnson’s play from the wrong place was not a serious breach so he was required to add two strokes to his score and play out the hole with the ball played from the wrong place.  (A serious breach occurs when the Committee considers that the player has gained a significant advantage as a result of playing from a wrong place.  Obviously putting from a location one putter-head length to the side did not gain Johnson a significant advantage.)

Fortunately for Johnson, the two-stroke penalty for playing from the wrong place didn’t cost him the title. He won by one stroke instead of three.

What if Johnson had placed his ball in the wrong place and then, before putting, remembered he had forgotten to move the ball-marker back?  This would not have been a problem.  He would have put his ball-marker back down behind the ball, lifted the ball, moved the ball-marker back to its original position and then replaced the ball on the spot from which he had lifted it.  Since either the ball-marker or the ball was always in a position to allow him to recreate the steps necessary to return the ball to the correct position, there would have been no penalties assessed.

Could anyone have said something to Johnson to prevent the penalty? It is considered good etiquette to help any player avoid a penalty and doing so is not considered advice as defined in the Rules of Golf.  Typically players do remind other players to move their ball-marker back, although they are not required to do so and sometimes forget in the heat of the moment.  Spectators and others also could have informed Johnson, although in this case, it may have been that they were unable to do so before he putted.

What if Johnson had not known of the infraction until after he had returned his scorecard?  If Johnson had not included the two-stroke penalty in his score for the 18th hole, the answer would depend on when the Committee and/or Johnson became aware of the error.  If either the Committee or Johnson became aware of the breach of Rule 20-7c before the competition was closed, he would have been disqualified under Rule 6-6d (The Player; Scoring in Stroke Play; Wrong Score for Hole).  But, had the competition been closed before the error was discovered, under Rule 34-1b (Disputes and Decisions; Claims and Penalties; Stroke Play) the penalty could not be imposed unless Johnson knew before the competition was closed that he had failed to replace the ball and therefore returned an incorrect score. 

When is the competition closed?  That is up to the Committee to determine and the best practice is for the Committee to decide this in advance of the competition.  For example, the USGA deems its competitions closed when the trophy is awarded to the winner.  In competitions at regional, state or local levels, the competition is often deemed closed when all scores have been approved by the Committee.

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