Rules Delay at P.G.A. Championship Sinks Sport Into Quagmire Yet Again


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Jordan Spieth and Brad Gregory, a rules official, spoke after Spieth hit his ball into a puddle on the seventh hole. Spieth was not penalized.

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Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

SPRINGFIELD, N.J. — Jordan Spieth was making a stirring, rousing run up the leaderboard Friday, finally bringing some sparkle and star power to a drowsy 2016 P.G.A. Championship, when golf’s pesky rule book once again elbowed its way into the competition.

The rule book can easily fit in a back pocket, but this year it has seemed as immense and omnipresent as the blimp that hovers over the game’s championships. This has been the summer of rule controversies, marring the United States Open and deciding the outcome of the United States Women’s Open.

But no one roots for a rules quagmire, not even rules officials.

So there was a certain amount of eye rolling, ennui, exasperation and disbelief when Spieth — with just three holes to finish in a sterling round — paused to consider his options when he hit his ball into a puddle on a cart path.

Then, there was a rules official on the scene.

Oh, boy, here we go. And this rules situation took about 10 minutes to resolve. The painful part of a root canal does not take as long as it took Spieth to drop and reposition his ball so he could hit his next shot.

The good news is that this time, no rule was deemed to have been breached, no penalty was assessed and Spieth could later say with good humor, if faint vexation, “Really don’t know why we’re talking about it to be honest.”

But in a nod to how seriously rules disputes have been treated this year, during most of Spieth’s post-round conversation with reporters he was treated like a trial witness with something to hide. Spieth had just put himself in contention with a three-under-par 67, which lifted him within shouting distance of the leaders at the halfway point of the tournament at Baltusrol Golf Club. But the majority of questions he faced were about how he had applied the rules.

This happened because social media was agog with intimations that Spieth’s 67 was not going to stand up, that a post-round penalty was going to be added.

Hey, we’ve seen it before in major championship golf this year.

But Spieth and tournament officials made it plain that nothing nefarious or mismanaged — or unobserved — had occurred. And they did so quickly, with officials issuing a statement absolving Spieth of any wrongdoing. Still, another in-depth rules examination? Haven’t we had enough recitations about rules with hyphens, periods and slashes in them?

Without getting overly rules geek technical, the whole situation began with a wayward Spieth drive that ended up on a gravel-like path to the right of a stand of trees on the seventh hole, which was one of Spieth’s concluding holes because he began his round on the 10th tee. There were potholes in the cart path filled with rainwater from a morning storm.

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Spieth could have chosen to take relief from the cart path, but he did not because it would have meant dropping his ball near the trees, which would have obstructed his shot toward the green, far to the left of the cart path.

Instead, he was entitled to take relief under a different rule pertaining to abnormal ground conditions. He could take the ball out of the puddle but drop it on the path, which is what Spieth wanted because it would allow him to hit a shot at the green.

A rules official, Brad Gregory, who is the former P.G.A. of America rules chairman, was at Spieth’s side advising him as he put the ball back in play on the path, which took quite a while because the path was strewn with puddles and bumps that sent Spieth’s ball careening in different directions. Fans standing nearby were tittering.

When all was seemingly resolved and Spieth took his stance over the ball, he altered the position to hit a curving hook of a shot to reach the green. In adjusting his stance, his left foot was almost touching the puddle or hovering over it. And that presented one perceived rules complication.

Relief under the circumstances usually must mean complete relief. So was Spieth placing his left foot near the water a violation?

P.G.A. officials emphatically said it was not, issuing a statement that read in part, “Jordan was entitled to either play the ball as it lay, even if his stance was still in the casual water or, he could have elected to take relief again from the casual water under this different type of stroke that he then elected to play.”

It should be noted that Spieth made bogey on the hole, a rare blemish on a scorecard that had five birdies. And Spieth was unapologetic in his explanation of what happened — as he should have been.

“I would have never hit if I was not told it was O.K. by a rules official,” he said. But Spieth did acknowledge the situation was “as complicated as I’ve ever really had.”

As implausible as it may seem, Spieth’s cart path escapade was not the only peculiar place his golf ball came to rest during Friday’s round. On the ninth hole he played, Baltusrol’s 18th, another errant shot hit a spectator and came to rest wedged up against a folding chair.

Spieth got relief. No rules controversy.

It was a respite from the summer of major championship golf rule controversies that would last only about an hour.

It has been that kind of year.

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