14 biggest rules controversies, mishaps and blunders of 2023
Every year, pro golfers go to battle with the Rules of Golf in the heat of competition. While recreational golfers regularly struggle with the rules, the stakes at your local muni are lower, and the rules sticklers are harder to find.
Not so on the PGA and LPGA Tours, or their feeding circuits. While pros have a much better grasp of the rules than your average hacker, they sometimes are guilty of forgetting them. Other times they make a blunder under pressure, while in more controversial instances, they don’t think they’ve violated the rules at all.
This past season was no different, with high-profile rules incidents breaking out involving some of the biggest legends in the modern game, including Rory McIlroy, Phil Mickelson, Brooks Koepka and Lydia Ko, to name just a few.
For your reading pleasure, we compiled 14 of the biggest rules controversies from 2023 all in one place. Scroll below to see the most impactful rules flaps of the year.
Biggest golf rules incidents of 2023
Matthew Fitzpatrick calls penalty on Collin Morikawa at Hero
After Saturday’s third round at the 2023 Hero World Challenge, two-time major champion Collin Morikawa was struck with a two-shot penalty for violating Model Local Rule G-11. The rules restricts usage of green-reading materials by pros.
It turns out Morikawa and his caddie had tested slopes on the practice putting green with a level, which is legal. But either Morikawa or his caddie wrote the results down in his green book. When he referenced those stats on the 4th green, he was in violation of the rule.
In a strange twist, fellow pro Matthew Fitzpatrick had texted Tour rules official Stephen Cox on Saturday night to ask about the rule. When pressed for more info, he revealed Morikawa’s error and the penalty was assessed.
Lydia Ko hit with 7-shot penalty after rules blunder
In July at the LPGA’s Dana Open, star Lydia Ko was hit with a massive penalty that sent her plummeting down the leaderboard. And some stormy weather was partly to blame.
In Saturday’s third round, players were allowed to lift, clean and place their balls on every hole after rain soaked the course. But for Sunday’s final round, the rule changed. For the final day of competition, players could only lift, clean and place their balls on holes 1 and 10.
Here’s where Ko comes in. The former World No. 1 did not realize the rules had been changed for Sunday, and she proceeded to lift, clean and place her balls on holes 3, 7, 9 and 11. Once she had picked up her ball on 11, Ko began to realize her mistake and called in a rules official.
After conferring, she was assessed two-stroke penalties on 3,7 and 9 for violating Rule 14.7a (lifting her ball and not returning it to its original spot) and a one-stroke penalty on 11 because she returned her ball to its original spot (Rule 9.4b.). In all, Ko was hit with seven penalty strokes.
Ko commented on the blunder on Instagram soon after, writing, “Note to self, read the preferred lies memo CAREFULLY next time realizing on the 11th hole that I had played the ball ‘up’ on holes that wasn’t meant to be, so giving myself an accumulated 7 stroke penalty was not the way I had envisioned the week to end. It’s frustrating, but you live and learn.”
Rory McIlroy gets away with incorrect drop at U.S. Open
You can call this rules controversy the penalty-that-never-was. In the final round of the U.S. Open at LACC, Rory McIlroy’s approach shot plugged deep into fescue covering the steep bank of a greenside bunker. After conferring with a rules official, it was determined McIlroy’s ball was plugged in the ground, which meant he was allowed to take a free drop.
This is where things got weird. The rules official then told McIlroy where the nearest point of relief was, and the four-time major winner made his free drop in accordance with the rules. The problem is that the official had misidentified the nearest point of relief.
After the round, the USGA acknowledged the error but determined that because McIlroy’s ball was dropped within 18 inches of the correct spot and because he earned no advantage from the incorrect placement, no penalty would be awarded.
Brooks Koepka’s caddie advice controversy at Masters
Brooks Koepka nearly won this year’s Masters, eventually surrendering the lead to Jon Rahm (before winning the next major at the PGA). But Koepka’s quest for the green jacket was nearly hampered on Saturday.
Playing alongside Gary Woodland in the third round, Koepka hit a 5-iron approach shot into the par-5 15th. After hitting, video caught Koepka’s caddie Ricky Elliott say something to Woodland’s caddie. Some observers claimed Elliott had said “five,” or, in other words, had given club advice to an opponent’s caddie, a clear violation of Rule 10-2a.
The penalty for that infraction would have been two strokes, but after tournament officials questioned all people involved in the incident, they chose not to charge Koepka any strokes. Masters officials released an explanation shortly thereafter, writing, “All involved were adamant that no advice was given or requested. Consequently, the Committee determined there was no breach of the Rules.”
Phil Mickelson nearly makes incorrect drop at PGA
The 2023 PGA Championship at Oak Hill was full of bizarre rules incidents, including a controversy involving one of the most high-profile figures in the game: Phil Mickelson.
On the 6th hole during the second round, Mickelson flew his drive into a swampy area surrounded by red stakes. After deciding to take an unplayable, he double-checked with playing partner Rickie Fowler on the rule (“Two club-lengths on red, correct?”) and began the process of making his drop.
At that moment, a rules official came over and stopped Phil, letting him know that he was about to make an incorrect drop. A debate between Mickelson and the official ensued, and the six-time major winner was adamant he was right.
But it turns out, unbeknownst to Mickelson, the rule regarding back-of-line relief had changed on January 1, 2023. As of the new year, rules 14.3b, 16.1c(2), and 17.1d(2) were altered to read like this: “the player must drop the ball on the line and the ball must come to rest within one club length in any direction of where it first touched the line.”
After the rules official confirmed he was right by radioing another official, he convinced Mickelson of his error. Mickelson was then allowed to take his drop following the new rules, and no additional penalty was assessed.
Cameron Young forgets to move ball mark back at PGA
Pro Cameron Young makes the list for an error that is not entirely uncommon in pro events, but a mistake that can be accurately described as an unforced error.
On Friday at Oak Hill, Young hit his first putt on the 16th hole to about two feet. With Young’s ball in the line of his playing partner Tommy Fleetwood’s putt, Fleetwood asked Young to move his mark, which he did, one putterhead to the right.
But after Fleetwood and Hideki Matsuyama putted out, Young went ahead and drained his two-footer without moving his ball back, a violation of rule 15.3c. Several holes later, Young was alerted to his error and assessed a two-shot penalty.
Lee Hodges waits too long for ball to drop at PGA
This one hurts. Again at the PGA Championship, lesser-known pro Lee Hodges went from jubilation to depression in a matter of moments.
On Saturday during the third round, Hodges rolled a 16-foot putt on Oak Hill’s 17th green and watched as it inexplicably came to rest on the edge of the cup. Hodges and playing partner Jordan Spieth clearly believed the ball would eventually drop into the hole, so they waited.
After 34 seconds, Hodges’ ball did just that. The problem is, he had waited too long. According to the rules, players are allowed to take a reasonable amount of time reach their balls in a situation like this, and then they’re allowed to wait an additional 10 seconds for the ball to drop. Since Hodges waited far longer than 10 seconds, he was later assessed a one-stroke penalty, changing his score from a par to a bogey.
Carlota Ciganda gets slow-play penalty, then DQ for incorrect scorecard
This one is in the running for the weirdest duel rules infraction of the year, and it features LPGA pro Carlota Ciganda and another major championship.
During the second round of the Evian Championship, Ciganda’s group was issued a slow-play warning on the 7th hole. When Ciganda then took too long to hit a shot on the 9th, she was hit with a two-stroke penalty for slow play.
After the round, Ciganda appealed the ruling with tournament officials, but they stayed firm that she had committed a violation. Refusing to accept their decision, Ciganda turned in her scorecard without adding the two-stroke penalty. As a result, she was disqualified for signing an incorrect scorecard.
Shad Tuten loses PGA Tour card after controversial ruling
Shad Tuten will not soon forget a rules mishap at the Korn Ferry Tour Championship that cost him dearly in his pro golf career.
When Tuten wrapped up his final round at the event, he was sitting in 30th place. Why is that significant? The top-30 finishers at the KFT Championship earn their PGA Tour cards.
But the result didn’t hold. After reviewing video footage of the round, officials determined that Tuten had committed a violation on the 15th hole. With lift, clean and place in effect, Tuten did just that with his second shot on the par-5. But once he placed his ball back in its spot, the ball moved slightly. Tuten then moved the ball back to its original spot and played on.
That’s where he went wrong. According to rule 14.2e, if a player’s ball moves in this scenario, the player is required to pick up the ball and place it back in its original position. Since Tuten just rolled his ball back into position, he was hit with a two-shot penalty, dropping him to 32nd place and costing him a life-changing PGA Tour card.
Thomas Pieters twice mistakenly thinks ball is OB
For many golfers, hitting a ball out of bounds has disastrous consequences on their scorecard. For Thomas Pieters, not hitting shots OB resulted in additional strokes… twice.
On Sunday at the Open Championship, Pieters thought he had hit two drives out of bounds, proceeded to hit provisional tee shots, and in both cases later found his original ball.
The first occurred on the 8th hole, where rules officials told him his first shot was out of bounds, so he hit a second tee shot. Even though the ball was later found, Pieters was forced to take the penalty and place his second ball because the original had been declared lost.
Then on the 18th, Pieters hit another wayward shot that he thought might have gone OB. Instead of walking up to his ball to look for it, he hit a provisional. But Pieters had not officially declared his second shot as a provisional, so when he found his first tee shot, he was again forced to play his second and take another penalty.
Richard Bland gets slow-play penalty at LIV event
Competition on the LIV Golf league looks a lot different than the PGA Tour, especially when it comes to rules violations, which are extremely rare on the upstart circuit.
Just don’t tell that to Richard Bland. Playing in the July LIV event at Valderrama Golf Club, Bland and his group were put on the clock for slow play early in the second round. Then on the 15th tee, Bland took 1 minute and 49 seconds to hit his drive. As a result, he earned a two-stroke penalty for slow play, the first of its kind for LIV Golf.
Tommy Kuhl DQs himself due to aerated greens at U.S. Open qualifying
Golf is a cruel game, and good deeds rarely go unpunished, as Tommy Kuhl found out during U.S. Open local qualifying at Illini Golf Club. The University of Illinois senior shot a course-record 62 in the event, earning him a spot in U.S. Open sectional qualifying.
Or at least he thought he had. After his round, Kuhl realized he had been fixing aeration marks on greens during the round, thinking they were ball marks, a violation of rule 13.1c(2).
Upon realizing his error, Kuhl notified a rules official and disqualified himself.
“I should know better,” Kuhl said following the incident. “It comes down to me. I should know that rule.”
Mel Reid marks ball off putting green at Women’s PGA
While the men’s PGA Championship featured several rules incidents, the 2023 KPMG Women’s PGA Championship had a rules mishap of its own.
As she approached the 5th green on Sunday, Mel Reid was fighting to stay in contention at the major championship held at storied Baltusrol. She found her ball on what she thought was the edge of the green, so she marked, lifted and cleaned it to prepare for her putt.
After doing so, Reid started questioning herself, and called in a rules official. At that point it was determined that Reid’s ball was actually on the collar four inches from the putting surface. As a result, she had violated Rule 9.4b, which states, “If the player lifts or deliberately touches their ball at rest or causes it to move, the player gets one penalty stroke.”
ANWA defending champ gets devastating penalty on 1st hole
Returning to the first round of the Augusta National Women’s Amateur at Champions Retreat, Anna Davis was ready to embark on her title defense after claiming victory in 2022. But disaster struck on the 1st hole.
While lift, clean and place rules were put in effect for closely-mown areas on the course, Davis twice picked up her ball from spots in the rough, which was not allowed. As a result, she received a four-stroke penalty, two for each violation.