It involves a player who tries to replace his ball on the putting green, only for it to slip out of his hands just inches above the ground and land on his marker – a lucky coin, in this case – and move it ever so slightly.
There was no intent for the marker to move. There was no advantage to be gained.
But there was a one-stroke penalty.
“It puts the focus on another stupid rule,” Poulter said.
No doubt he could find a few other colleagues wanting to tweak the Rules of Golf, which will next be amended for 2012.
Brian Davis was docked two shots in a playoff at Hilton Head when his club ticked a loose reed in a waste area to the left of the 18th. Juli Inkster was penalized for swinging a club with a weight attached to stay loose during a delay. And who will ever forget Dustin Johnson not realizing he was in a bunker at the PGA Championship, going from a playoff to a tie for fifth after his two-shot penalty?
Poulter speaks from an experience he would just as soon forget.
He was on the second hole of a sudden-death playoff with Robert Karlsson at the Dubai World Championship, a great finish to the European Tour season, when they came to the par-5 18th green. Poulter went to replace his ball on a 40-foot birdie putt when it fell from his fingertips, hit the edge of the coin and made it flip over.
“It was literally like this,” Poulter said Tuesday, squatting and twirling a golf ball with his fingers before letting it fall to the ground.
First, some perspective.
Poulter knows he was unlikely to win the tournament, for while he had the long birdie putt, Karlsson had pitched to about 4 feet for birdie.
“That softens the blow a little bit,” Poulter said.
He will argue, however, that he at least had a chance until one slip of the hand, one flip of the coin. Did it cost him the tournament? Probably not, although it made for some sensational “what if?” stories.
The difference between winning and losing was $417,000. Throw in an extra $150,000 for the Race to Dubai bonus. And those ranking points could wind up costing Poulter even more money in incentives, the whole package perhaps worth close to $1 million depending on how he finishes the year at the Chevron World Challenge.
“I understand the rule,” Poulter said. “I knew straightaway, because I had heard of it happening before. Look, I don’t want to sound like bitter grapes. I didn’t do anything intentional to gain an advantage. Do I think the rule should be changed? Yes. Did I think the rule should be changed beforehand? I wasn’t really bothered by it.”
Poulter also realizes that if this had happened on the seventh hole Friday, no one might have noticed, much less cared.
“When you look at when it happened, where it happened and what it meant … it couldn’t have happened at a worse time,” he said. “It was a really, really bad time.”
It could have been worse. Imagine the outrage if Poulter had been 4 feet from the hole for birdie and Karlsson was 40 feet away. That would have cost him the tournament, the money, the world ranking points.
“I would be sick,” Poulter said with a healthy grin. “I wouldn’t be talking to anyone. I would still be miserable.”
Consider the reaction if Johnson had made his par putt on the 18th hole at Whistling Straits, which would have made him the PGA champion until he got into the scoring trailer and been told to add two shots to his score.
As for Davis?
It was noble of him to call the penalty on himself. But for those who argue it’s an arcane rule, Davis obviously knew enough about the rules to realize that he might have broken one.
Davis was in a similar situation to Poulter. There was so much outrage about ridiculous rules that some perspective was lost. Davis was in deep trouble left of the green, and all he could do was hack it out to about 45 feet for par. Jim Furyk was 5 feet away for par and most likely would have won even if Davis were not penalized.
What amazes is the notion that golf looks bad for playing by the rules. Yes, it’s a harsh penalty for such an innocuous mistake. But in every case, it’s the player who makes the mistake – and more often than not, the player knows it.
Did he gain an advantage in Dubai? No. Was it intentional? Of course not.
But as Jeff Hall of the USGA points out, the marker is the equivalent of the ball. If Poulter’s ball had been on the green and moved ever so slightly, “I suspect most people wouldn’t have the emotional connection to a penalty,” Hall said.
“At the end of the day, our rules are clear,” Hall said. “Our game is unique from all others. It requires us to know the rules.”
Remember, it was Poulter who one year at The Players Championship hit wedge into 6 feet on the fourth hole, marked his ball and had the ball slip out of his hand and roll into the water. It would have been a two-stroke penalty for not finishing the hole with the same ball.
In this case, Poulter’s therapist came out of the gallery, stripped down to his boxers and waded into the water to get the ball.