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.