The rules of golf are unforgiving.  Apparently, the 18th Century Scotsmen who devised the first formal rules were a stern bunch.  As if the game itself is not challenging enough for mere mortals, golfers who strive to abide by the rules are subject to a myriad of penalties, even in cases where they are not at fault.

Case in point: once the player has addressed the ball (taken his or her stance and grounded the club), any movement of the ball (for example, by wind or some ground tremor) results in a one-stroke penalty because the player is “deemed” to have moved the ball. (Rule 18-2b.)  (“Deem” is a word commonly encountered in legal parlance, but unfortunately has infiltrated the rules of golf. This might put a new spin on Shakespeare’s resolve to “kill all the lawyers” – perhaps the bard played golf.)

The most severe penalty in golf is disqualification from a competition, frequently referred to in shorthand as “being DQ’d.”  2010 might be remembered as the “Year of the DQ.”  A number of golfers at both the professional and amateur levels were disqualified, both for transgressions of the rules of golf and the rules governing PGA Tour events.  This article takes a look at these incidents.

                                                    Juli Inkster and the Swing Trainer

At the LPGA Safeway Classic in August, Juli Inkster was on the verge of making history.  The 50-year old veteran had shot a 5-under par 67 in the second round at Pumpkin Ridge in Oregon to climb into a tie for second place, putting her in position to become the oldest winner in LPGA history.  However, after she finished, she received the shocking news that she had been disqualified for using a swing training device during the round.

Play had backed up on the par-5 10th hole, resulting in a long delay.  Waiting on the tee, Inkster removed a weighted training aid (a so-called “donut”) from her bag, slid it onto the shaft of a club, and took some practice swings.  Footage was shown on the Golf Channel, and a viewer sent an e-mail alerting officials to the incident.  (It was not clear why Inkster was not informed of the problem until after she completed her round.)

Rule 14-3a prohibits the use, during a round, of “artificial devices” or “unusual equipment” that might “assist” the player in “making a stroke” or in “his play.”  The penalty for a breach of this rule is disqualification.  Decision 14-3/10 explains that the use of a donut in making a practice swing during a round impermissibly assists play.  On the other hand, certain stretching devices that are not designed to be used in a golf swing (such as rubber tubing or a bar to be placed across the shoulders) are permissible.  (Decision 14-3/10.5)  Go figure.

One might question whether the use of a donut during a delay in play in order to stay loose is the sort of “assistance” contemplated by Rule 14-3a.  Nevertheless, as a veteran professional, Inkster should have been aware of the prohibition.  She later commented:  “I had a 30-minute wait, and I needed to loosen up.  It had no effect on my game whatsoever, but it is what it is.  I’m very disappointed.”

LPGA rules official Sue Witter, who went extra lengths to contact the USGA before making a ruling, explained that there was no choice but to disqualify Inkster.  “It’s a penalty that you never want to give anybody if it’s not deserved,” she said.  “We would love to have had some wiggle room on that, but it’s pretty cut and dried.”  Suzann Petterson, one of Inkster’s fellow tour members, commented:  “Golf must be the game with the most stupid rules!”

                                                    How Many Clubs are in Your Bag?

The other day I noticed that I had 15 clubs in my bag.  A few years ago I replaced my 4-iron with a hybrid.  However, recently during a period of unusually good ball striking (which proved short-lived) I was experimenting with my retired 4-iron, and inadvertently left it in the bag.  Had I played any competitive rounds I would have been penalized for exceeding the 14-club limit imposed by Rule 4-4.  (The penalty for carrying extra clubs is 2 strokes per hole, up to a maximum of 4 strokes.)

While it makes sense to limit the number of clubs a player may carry (if for no other reason than making the carrying of the bag less arduous), I have often wondered why the golf rules gurus decided to cap the arsenal at 14.  Before the 14-club limit was imposed in 1936, some top players carried as many as 25 clubs.  (Imagine how many wedges Phil Mickelson would carry if unrestricted by Rule 4-4.)

In any event, the 14-club limit proved to have tragic consequences for Zach Nash, a 14-year old who competed in a Wisconsin junior PGA tournament last summer.  Nash shot a 77 to win the Milwaukee County Parks Tour Invitational.  Afterwards, he stopped by his club to show his tournament medal to Chris Wood, the golf pro.  Wood happened to notice an unfamiliar club in Nash’s bag, which turned out to belong to a friend.  Nash was shocked.

Because he was not aware of the extra club during the tournament, Nash did not add the penalty strokes (4) required by Rule 4-4 to his score, and thus signed an incorrect scorecard.  The penalty for signing an incorrect scorecard is disqualification (Rule 6-6b).

In keeping with “the spirit of the game,” Nash made a painful but admirable decision:  he contacted tournament officials and disqualified himself.  “I knew right away that I couldn’t live with myself if I kept this medal,” said Nash.  Wood said Nash’s actions made his club proud.  “I think most people – not just kids – would have tried to justify in their mind having the extra clubs in their bag and not using them as an excuse to not call and disqualify themselves,” he said.

At his next tournament, Nash counted his clubs three times.

                                                    Never Use Your Cell Phone as an Alarm Clock

Jim Furyk ranked third in the FedEx standings on the eve of The Barclays tournament at Ridgewood Country Club in Paramus New Jersey in August, the first of the lucrative FedEx playoff events that would be decisive in his quest for the $10,000,000 winner’s prize. However, before the competition commenced, Furyk was committed to play in a pro-am event.

Unfortunately, Furyk missed his 7:30 a.m. tee time for the pro-am after his cell phone battery died overnight and its alarm clock failed. He woke at 7:23, threw on some clothes, and rushed to the course, but was too late to join his group.  Under PGA Tour rules, Furyk was disqualified for the Barclays event.  The Tour adopted the disqualification penalty in 2004 after some pros began skipping the pro-am events for suspect reasons.

While Furyk took the disqualification in good spirit, blaming himself for his laxity, Phil Mickelson (the unofficial gadfly of Tour policies) sharply criticized the rule.  Noting that only 54 of the 122 players entered in the Barclays were in the pro-am, Mickelson argued that it is unfair to impose such a severe penalty that is not applicable to the entire field.  “So if you’re going to have a rule that does not apply to everybody, you cannot have it affect the competition….It’s ridiculous,” he said.

One week later, the Tour suspended the rule for the remainder of the 2010 season.  A player missing a pro-am starting time would not be disqualified but would be required to participate in the remainder of the round and be cited for “unbecoming conduct,” possibly requiring participation in additional “sponsor activity.”  In other words, you’re excused if you show up and mingle sociably with the VIPs who provide the financial support for the Tour.  (I could deal with that for a chance to win $10,000,000.)

Justice prevailed. Despite missing the Barclays, Furyk ended up winning the FedEx Cup.  Perhaps he used some of the $10,000,000 for a new travel alarm.

                                      Even the Hottest Players Still Have to Sign-Up for the Tournament

Chad Campbell, a rising star on the PGA Tour, showed up for the Deutsche Bank Championship in September, the second lucrative playoff event of 2010, hoping to increase his standing in the FedEx Cup race.  As it turned out, he never got the chance.  He was disqualified because he forgot to register for the event.

Mark Russell, vice-president of rules and competition for the Tour, commented:  “It’s one of the things you have to do.  You have to register, you have to show up at the tee on time, you have to sign your scorecard.”  (These don’t seem like onerous requirements.  Don’t most touring pros have managers?)  “I just can’t believe you make a mistake like that,” said Campbell.  He recalled that he once flew to Hawaii for a tournament then realized he had neglected to commit to play.  “That was a little worse,” he noted.

Maybe Furyk and Campbell should organize a study group on PGA Tour rules.

Note: Jack Ross completed an intensive golf rules workshop sponsored by the USGA and the PGA.  His interest in the rules of golf was sparked when he was disqualified in a club championship for agreeing with his opponent to waive a rule.  This article originally appeared in Golf Rules Corner, ValleySportsNow.com (10/17/10).