Rahm, Langer playing by the Rules

By Rex HoggardJuly 12, 2017, 3:04 pm

If nothing else the last few weeks has proven that there’s nothing simple about the simplification of the Rules of Golf.

The rule makers’ current relationship status would best be described as complicated after a confusing news cycle that included one of the game’s greatest champions being questioned over his style of putting and an up-and-coming star’s statement victory being overshadowed by a convoluted new ruling.

In both cases, neither the former (Bernhard Langer) nor the latter (Jon Rahm) deserve the cloud of doubt that always accompanies a rules controversy. In both cases, the slings and arrows have been wildly misdirected because neither Langer nor Rahm violated any rules, at least not the way the rules are currently written.

For Langer, those who question whether he’s violating the rule (14-1b) that prohibits the anchoring of a club when making a stroke, the concerns are valid, but the German is not the culprit here.

“We are confident that the rule has been applied fairly and consistently and have seen no evidence of a player breaching the rule, which does not prohibit a hand or club to touch a player’s clothing in making a stroke,” the USGA said in a statement.

Langer issued a similar statement, which likely did little to placate those who see a violation of either the letter of the law or the spirit of the rule, which began in 2016. But this current brouhaha is no more Langer’s issue than Sunday’s snafu at the Irish Open was Rahm’s.

During the final round of a commanding performance at Portstewart, Rahm marked his ball on the sixth green slightly to the side of playing partner Daniel Im’s mark. When the Spaniard replaced his ball he appeared to put it back directly in front of the mark, not to the side.

Rahm, who went on to win the event by six strokes, explained to a European Tour rules official that, “I think I made an effort to put it back to the side.” Under a new rule created in the wake of a similar penalty that cost Lexi Thompson at the ANA Inspiration in April, Rahm was absolved of any wrongdoing.

“Do I think he's got the ball in exactly the right place? No, I don't. I think the ball is slightly in the wrong place, but we're talking about maybe a couple millimeters here or there,” said European Tour chief rules official Andy McFee. “So then that falls within the limitation of video evidence, and it comes down to has the player made a reasonable judgment? And I believe he has.”

For both Langer and Rahm this is essentially a question of intent. Did Langer intend to gain a competitive advantage by letting his hand graze his shirt during a putting stroke? Did Rahm – who, again, won by a touchdown minus the extra point – need to be an inch or two closer to the hole to coax in his 2-footer at the sixth on Sunday?

In both cases, those who make and those who enforce the rules say no. Common sense, or reasonable judgment, prevailed on both fronts, which is a victory by any measure considering that for too long the Rules of Golf were far too rigid.

The problem here is that as a result of this newfound grey area, Langer and Rahm are both left playing defense in the court of public opinion, however unfair that may be. Neither broke a rule nor, let’s be honest, did anything that should be considered unsavory, yet they find themselves under attack by both traditional and social media.

Earlier this year the USGA and R&A announced a list of proposed rule changes they hope will simplify and modernize the game. The vast majority of these changes have been applauded as true progress, but as recent events have indicated unintended consequences can ruin the best of plans.

Hindsight can be a ruthless judge and jury but then the guardians of the game are not exactly batting above the Mendoza Line in recent years.

Consider the ban on anchoring, which some saw as a reaction to major victories by players using anchored putting strokes. Since the ban in ’16, the putting average on the PGA Tour has remained statistically unchanged (1.78) compared to the three years before the ban.

Similarly, the 2010 ban of square grooves, or U-grooves, has done little to slow the play-for-pay set. In the eight years prior to the move to V-shaped grooves, which were supposed to produce less spin particularly from the rough, the average Tour professional hit his approach shot from the rough (150-175 yards) to 45 feet. In the eight years since the ban on square grooves, that average has dropped to 42 feet, 5 inches.

Rulemaking types will contend these are equipment issues and shouldn’t be compared to the new rule that kept Rahm from being penalized in Ireland or Langer on the PGA Tour Champions, but the lessons are no less valid.

Earlier this year USGA chief executive Mike Davis indicated that the ongoing simplification of the Rules of Golf won’t stop at the 36 proposed significant changes, which is encouraging given the current landscape.

History shows there’s nothing simple about this process and that trial and error may be the rule makers’ best tool to avoid, or remedy, unintended consequences, like those that have unfairly turned a spotlight on Langer and Rahm.

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Crocker among quartet of Open qualifiers in Singapore

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 2:20 pm

Former amateur standout Sean Crocker was among four players who qualified for the 147th Open via top-12 finishes this week at the Asian Tour's SMBC Singapore Open as part of the Open Qualifying Series.

Crocker had a strong college career at USC before turning pro late last year. The 21-year-old received an invitation into this event shortly thereafter, and he made the most of his appearance with a T-6 finish to net his first career major championship berth.

There were four spots available to those not otherwise exempt among the top 12 in Singapore, but winner Sergio Garcia and runners-up Shaun Norris and Satoshi Kodaira had already booked their tickets for Carnoustie. That meant that Thailand's Danthai Boonma and Jazz Janewattanond both qualified thanks to T-4 finishes.

Full-field scores from the Singapore Open

Crocker nabbed the third available qualifying spot, while the final berth went to Australia's Lucas Herbert. Herbert entered the week ranked No. 274 in the world and was the highest-ranked of the three otherwise unqualified players who ended the week in a tie for eighth.

The next event in the Open Qualifying Series will be in Japan at the Mizuno Open in May, when four more spots at Carnoustie will be up for grabs. The 147th Open will be held July 19-22 in Carnoustie, Scotland.

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Got a second? Fisher a bridesmaid again

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 1:40 pm

Ross Fisher is in the midst of a career resurgence - he just doesn't have the hardware to prove it.

Fisher entered the final round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship with a share of the lead, and as he made the turn he appeared in position to claim his first European Tour victory since March 2014. But he slowed just as Tommy Fleetwood caught fire, and when the final putt fell Fisher ended up alone in second place, two shots behind his fellow Englishman.

It continues a promising trend for Fisher, who at age 37 now has 14 career runner-up finishes and three in his last six starts dating back to October. He was edged by Tyrrell Hatton both at the Italian Open and the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship in the fall, and now has amassed nine worldwide top-10 finishes since March.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

Fisher took a big step toward ending his winless drought with an eagle on the par-5 second followed by a pair of birdies, and he stood five shots clear of Fleetwood with only nine holes to go. But while Fleetwood played Nos. 10-15 in 4 under, Fisher played the same stretch in 2 over and was unable to eagle the closing hole to force a playoff.

While Fisher remains in search of an elusive trophy, his world ranking has benefited from his recent play. The veteran was ranked outside the top 100 in the world as recently as September 2016, but his Abu Dhabi runner-up result is expected to move him inside the top 30 when the new rankings are published.

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McIlroy (T-3) notches another Abu Dhabi close call

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 1:08 pm

Rory McIlroy's trend of doing everything but hoist the trophy at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship is alive and well.

Making his first start since early October, McIlroy showed few signs of rust en route to a tie for third. Amid gusty winds, he closed with a 2-under 70 to finish the week at 18 under, four shots behind Tommy Fleetwood who rallied to win this event for the second consecutive year.

The result continues a remarkable trend for the Ulsterman, who has now finished third or better seven of the last eight years in Abu Dhabi - all while never winning the tournament. That stretch includes four runner-up finishes and now two straight T-3 results.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

McIlroy is entering off a disappointing 2017 in which he was injured in his first start and missed two chunks of time while trying to regain his health. He has laid out an ambitious early-season schedule, one that will include a trip to Dubai next week and eight worldwide tournament starts before he heads to the Masters.

McIlroy started the final round one shot off the lead, and he remained in contention after two birdies over his first four holes. But a bogey on No. 6 slowed his momentum, and McIlroy wasn't able to make a back-nine birdie until the closing hole, at which point the title was out of reach.

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Fleetwood rallies to defend Abu Dhabi title

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 12:48 pm

The 2018 European Tour season has begun just as the 2017 one ended: with Tommy Fleetwood's name atop the standings.

Facing the most difficult conditions of the week, Fleetwood charged down the stretch to shoot a 7-under 65 in the final round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, good enough for a two-shot win and a successful title defense.

Abu Dhabi was the start of Fleetwood's resurgence a year ago, the first of two European Tour victories en route to the season-long Race to Dubai title. This time around the Englishman started the final round two shots off the lead but rallied with six birdies over his final nine holes to reclaim the trophy.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

Fleetwood was five shots behind countryman Ross Fisher when he made the turn, but he birdied the par-5 10th and then added four birdies in a five-hole stretch from Nos. 12-16. The decisive shot came on the final hole, when his pitch from the left rough nestled within a few feet of the hole for a closing birdie.

Fleetwood's 22-under total left him two shots ahead of Fisher and four shots clear of Rory McIlroy and Matthew Fitzpatrick. After entering the week ranked No. 18, Fleetwood is expected to move to at least No. 12 in the world when the new rankings are published.