Rahm's Rules infraction raises questions about golf's supposed moral standards

Is a nonchalant approach to the Rules catching up with professional golfers?
Jon Rahm holed this touchy flop shot on the 16th hole at Muirfield Village, but a birdie turned into a bogey due to an entirely avoidable Rules infraction.

It should have been the signature highlight of the PGA Tour's COVID-19-era return. Instead, it will be overshadowed by awkwardness.

Jon Rahm's holed flop shot on the 70th hole of the Memorial Tournament was a tremendous moment for the newest #1 golfer in the world and heir to the great tradition of exciting Spanish golfers, from Seve Ballesteros to Miguel Angel Jimenez to Sergio Garcia.

Just prior to Rahm's shot, camera footage clearly showed that when he went to sole the club behind the ball, he caused it to move. Rahm was ultimately assessed a two-stroke penalty for the infraction, turning a presumed birdie into a bogey and cutting his margin of victory from five shots to three. It didn't affect the overall outcome of the tournament and Rahm handled the incident with nothing but class. So, no big deal, right?

Not so fast.

If this were a fluke or isolated incident, it would be easy to dismiss. But high-profile brushes with golf's Rules and etiquette have seemed to happen more often in recent years than ever before. This trend of strange episodes raises some questions about the game and one of its proudest tenets.

Golf likes to assert a sense of moral superiority to other sports. The old saw "If you ain't cheatin', you ain't tryin'" is attributed to figures from practically every competitive sport except golf. Major institutions like the USGA trumpet as sacred the game's self-policing nature and inherent aversion to the sorts of dark tactics that are accepted as part of other sports, from flopping in basketball to after-the-play roughness in football and the decades-old tradition of pitchers subtly doctoring baseballs.

And yet, "what happened with Jon Rahm [at 16] would have happened hundreds of times this week," Brandel Chamblee said on Sunday evening's edition of GOLF Central, implying that Rahm's method of soling the club so close behind the ball is commonplace, and that players golf balls regularly subtly change positions as a result.

What does this say about golf's pretensions to purity? Is there a subtle understanding among the best golfers that certain rules of golf are best followed in spirit, rather than in letter? If, as Chamblee said, there were "hundreds" of instances of a player soling a club behind his ball in the rough resulted in those balls moving slightly during the week at Muirfield Village, that means there were hundreds of penalties that should have been assessed but weren't. Doesn't that damage the integrity of the competition? Or should we stop raising an eyebrow even when a slight but overt movement of the golf ball happens on camera? Should we simply take this as part of the game at the professional level, the way we accept basketball flops?

Interestingly, this is not the first time Rahm has dallied with a Rules infraction during a blowout win. In 2017, while winning the Irish Open by six shots, on the 6th green of that final round, he appeared to replace his ball improperly on the putting green after marking it. He was not ultimately penalized, although in the wake of that episode, Chamblee argued that Rahm "broke the rule. He should have been penalized, which means he wouldn’t have been playing with a five-shot lead. He would have been playing with a three-shot lead." Coincidentally, that would have been the precise case at The Memorial had Rahm received his penalty before teeing off on the 17th, rather than after the conclusion of the round.

Of course, this issue isn't really about Chamblee or even Rahm, but rather an overall sense that professional golfers do not currently have razor-sharp eyes for the Rules. "Backstopping," where one player will leave his or her golf ball near the hole on the green in a situation where it might aid another player, is a favorite subject of Rules hawks, having gone unpenalized several times in recent years on both the PGA and LPGA Tours. Patrick Reed's penalty for improving his lie in a bunker at the 2019 Hero World Challenge generated a maelstrom of its own. Just last week, while making a fateful 10 on the 15th hole of his second round, Bryson DeChambeau appeared to tamp down the grass where he was preparing to drop his ball, though he was not ultimately penalized for it.

If pros are really this unconcerned with following the more minor parts of the Rules, who knows how many other infractions occur away from rolling cameras during elite professional golf tournaments?

Hundreds, if Chamblee is correct.

This invites the question: If the golfers for whom knowledge of the Rules is supposedly a job requirement are as nonchalant about them as they appear, are they becoming obsolete?

I personally hope not. In the relatively meaningless tournaments I play in, I have always taken comfort in the understood covenant of golf's Rules: the assumption that everyone is playing on the up-and-up. But maybe I'm naive.

Tim Gavrich is a Senior Writer for GolfPass. Follow him on Twitter @TimGavrich and on Instagram @TimGavrich.
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My opinion. NO rules infraction caught on camera should be enforced. OMG WHY?? Simple-Not EVERY player or shot is on camera and the rules are to be enforced for every player not just the ones on TV. No one cares or sees what the #150 pro does before the TV coverage starts so why care when TV sees a rules infraction from the #1 pro? If TV can't catch everyone and every shot it should not be used as that kind of tool. Penalize-able infractions should seen by an official, reported by another player or caddie or by someone in the gallery that sees one and informs an official (quickly) with some kind of proof. TV infractions can be used to reprimand and or fine a player. The governing bodies need to Keep a list of ALL infractions (including slow play) and if needed suspend a player. Yes, someone will catch a break this way but the media storm will be relentless for that player and any player/caddie that failed to report a seen rules infraction. Players and caddies are watching each other all the time so the chances are the will see one. They just need the guts to report it. If not, it's up to the reporters and social media to call them out.
So whom is more of a cheater? The one that breaks a rule (with or without intention) or the one that lets him or her get away with it??
Checks and balances. We have them. We/they just need to use them!!
That is my opinion.

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And BTW,

CBS has lost me. Refuse to watch another CBS golf show.

Hey, CBS, air your BLM stories somewhere/sometime else. Your feigned "wokeness" just lost you a viewer. Especially when the person conveying his experience regurgitates a sequence of events that has been proven to be false, but is still used for a narrative hoping those who do not know better will believe it.

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You sound like a bitter old golfer (who was a "want to be pro") and/or private course member. If YOU want play to a USGA handicap than play with others like you! Most people play golf for the fun (you remember fun don't you?) Getting on a golf course for many is a way to get away from the stress of work or personal problems. If a person can sit down after a round with a beer in hand and a smile on their face what is the harm. If you don't let the person you are playing with know that you are a "by the rules golfer" or don't call them on an infraction - you are just as guilty and get what you deserve - a no fun round of golf.

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I saw Rahm's on TV and raised an eye but turned of the coverage before hearing he was assessed. To me, his action appeared deliberate, not unintentional.

Getting harder and harder for me to find someone to play golf with. I stew incessantly (to myself) when I see someone cheat and it affects my play to the point I just tell the partner that I am not keeping score. Finally got to play this year with a long-time buddy that his chipped me for years, and he somehow managed to card a bogey on the first hole despite a ball in the water, improper drop and a top.

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I agree with Dennis. Wasn't there a rule change a few years ago stating the PGA and LPGA would no longer use zoom-in camera shots "after the fact" to review a shot for possible penalization. The zoom lens can see what the naked CANNOT see. Case in point when Anna Nordquist lost a major a few years ago because her club touched ONE GRAIN of sand in the bunker, was assessed a 2 stroke penalty after she had finished the round, which if known sooner may have changed her strategy for playing 18. Thru the zoom lens the teeny tiny pyramid of sand looked like a small mountain and was also from the side view, but to the naked eye you could not even see that it was a small mound of sand and from above, the mound was under her club and not visible to her. Lets not forget what happened to Lexi Thompson at the ANA Inspiration because her marker was not in exactly the same spot and she lost the major by 1 stroke because of a ZOOM LENS. I think the officials also need to adhere to the rules they themselves have put in place. If there is a blatant infraction of a rule by a player, by all means penalize, but some of the decisions are questionable. I personally feel that by and large 99.9% of the pros are honest and do not deliberately cheat. Thanks!

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Look closely at Rahm’s action. Assume that the ball did not move or that it returned to its original position. He puched down on the grass and it stayed down thus exposing more of the back of the ball. Much like Reed’s action in the sand trap, Rahm had a cleaner ball , less grass between the club face and ball. Look when these PGA guys approach their ball, what isthe first thing they do? They examine the ball on the ground and assess contact, just as Rahm did. In my opinion, he knew exactly what occurred. I watched him several times prior to the 16th, each time in the rough he did the same thing, push 5he grass. In short, a penalty for improving his lie whether it moved or not. The man is great but he is slowly buildinga history.

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Obviously, the solution is “body/cap cams” for all players! ;-)

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only slow motion tv was able to detect ball movement. If there was no tv nothing would have happened

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I think the commentators said it best. Rahm's lie in the rough was totally unaffected by the slight "movement" when the ball reacted to the movement of the grass when he soled the club. Therefore, no harm no foul. Move on......

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Was there not a rule that if a player signed his card and then was assessed his penalty and had to amend his score--was he not automatically disqualified?

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John
Depends upon whether the erronious lower hole score(s) is because of a failure to include a penalty the player was unaware of. Otherwise (with a couple of exceptions) he is disqualified

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Come play at some of the courses in Arkansas and you will see the rules go out the window. We play for the fun of getting outside and enjoying each others conversations. Our courses are "rough" to say the least. Jon's ball moving because the grass was extremely thick was inevitable, Your camera just happened to be positioned to where it caught the slight movement, which did not improve his shot in any way. You call that cheating? I don't. Cheating would have been him moving the ball 3 foot to a better position.

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Rahm's Rules infraction raises questions about golf's supposed moral standards