During the second round of the PGA Championship at Baltusrol, Jordan Spieth found his ball lying in a very unique situation. On hole #7, It was in the middle of an artificially-surfaced golf car path, but also in the middle of a puddle of casual water in the middle of the path.
Spieth was presented with a unique conundrum, he was entitled to relief from the immovable obstruction (path) or the abnormal ground condition (casual water). He was not required to take relief from either and in fact, could take relief from one and still end up in a position where there is interference from the other. He discussed the options with PGA of America Rules Official Brad Gregory, a former Chairman of the PGA Rules Committee and one of the most knowledgeable Rules Officials in the world. Gregory explained his nearest point of relief from the path would force him to stand in the tree branches, so Spieth looked into taking relief from just the casual water.
Gregory had Spieth demonstrate the stroke, stance and direction of play with the club he would’ve used had the casual water not been present. This club, stance and direction of play was left of the tree in front of him and angled slightly left. The determined the nearest point of relief on the left side of the puddle, but Gregory explained that Spieth could measure the one club-length in any direction, provided the ball is dropped in a position that avoids interference from the puddle.
Spieth tried dropping on a spot diagonally backward from the nearest point of relief, but it was determined that the spot where the ball was dropped (after two drops and a place) was actually in a position where there was still interference. So Rule 20-6 (Lifting Ball Incorrectly Substituted, Dropped or Place) wipes those drops out, and Spieth’s “drop count” was still 0. Along with Gregory’s assistance, Spieth tried to find a spot diagonally right from the nearest point of relief that did have complete interference that was within one club-length. Spieth found the spot, dropped twice (actually there were two proper drops, he dropped outside the applicable area at one point also), each time rolling forward to a position where there was still interference, and demonstrated to Gregory a stance with a new direction of play. Gregory caught on to this and had Spieth demonstrate the originally determined stance and direction of play which was finally free of the casual water. The ball was finally in play properly and relief for that particular situation was complete.
Spieth was then entitled to change his direction of play, stance and/or club if desired to play the stroke. If interference occurred with the new stroke, he would be entitled to relief for the new situation. When he played this new stroke his toe hovered over the puddle, and judging by Gregory’s initial conversation with Spieth that water was still visible on the surface just surrounding the edge of the puddle his foot was definitely touching casual water, but that’s ok.
While many have cited various Decisions in the Rules of Golf supporting this ruling, (all of which are relevant and do support the ruling), the heart of the issue, boils down to the Definitions, the most basic building blocks for the Rules of Golf.
The Definition of Nearest Point of Relief is “the point on the course nearest to where the ball lies that is (i) not nearer the hole and (ii) where, if the ball were so positioned, no interference by the condition from which relief is sought would exist for the stroke the player would have made from the original position if the condition were not there.”
From the very beginning, Gregory had Spieth proceeding on the basis of a specific swing, stance and direction of play – a specific stroke – that Spieth would have made if the casual water had not been present. That specific stroke is what Spieth was entitled to relief for and he had to obtain complete relief for that stroke, not a different one. Gregory, through a bunch of drops, discussion and demonstration successfully managed to get Spieth in a position where complete relief was obtained for the stroke Spieth would have made had the casual water not been present. Despite common belief, Spieth was not then locked into actually using that original stroke for his next play. He was entitled to change directions, stance or even clubs if he wished (this is where Decisions 20-2c/0.8, 24-2b/4, 24-2b/17 and 25-1b/22 provide a lot of support).
With the new position of the ball further toward the middle of the path, he decided he was able to play a new shot around the trees for a better play at the green. This new stance put his toe most likely in the casual water. If Spieth wanted to go through the ordeal again and drop for this new type of stroke, he was actually entitled to do so.