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Rules are rules. Or are they?





Jon Rahm’s incredible ability is hardly a secret, but his extraordinary score of 65 on Sunday at the Irish Open was something to behold.

Two eagles and five birdies underlined what an all-action player he is – four eagles and 23 birdies throughout the week, in fact. You dare not head to the kitchen to make a cup of tea when he comes onto screen.

Today he sits as the eighth-ranked player in the world just 12 months after turning pro. Let that sink in for a second. He’s now won on both sides of the pond this year, and is set to go to the Open as fourth favourite among bookmakers. Wow!

“It (winning) proves to me I can perform properly on a links golf course and that's what I've got to take to The Open," the Spaniard said. "I know now that I have what it takes.”

Indeed he does, and there’ll be no shortage of takers willing to have a punt on him at Birkdale next week.

Yet for all the thrilling splendour of his play at Portstewart on Sunday, that incident on the sixth hole left an indelible stain on proceedings.

His failure to replace his ball in the right spot raised the spectre of the so-called ‘Lexi rule’, after American Lexi Thompson was assessed a retrospective four-stroke penalty at the ANA Inspiration in April, which eventually cost her victory.

Widespread condemnation of rules officials from the golfing fraternity followed, and it was largely accepted that it was they who had bungled it, rather than the player herself.

And of course, few people argue that the manner in which the penalty was imposed on Thompson was poor. To only notify her of the transgression the following day, midway through the final round, was a shocker.

Yet completely absolving her of blame sat uncomfortably with me too. She did, after all, make an error – inadvertently or otherwise.

I applaud the recent proposed simplifications of the rules on the part the USGA and R&A. Too many pages of the existing rule book are wasted on splitting hairs and arbitrary statutes, which invariably scare off potential newcomers – hopeless for a sport in dire need of them.

Yet deep within the DNA of traditionalists, there are certain lines which are not blurred, and a red light flickers when they are crossed.

We’ve all played with or against people who mark their balls ‘tactically’, and it’s unsavoury when it happens. We learned the rules without the expectation of television cameras being required to enforce them.

At the end of the day, the nature of the game is such that it is 99 percent incumbent upon ourselves as players to stay within the lines, and declare fair when we don’t.

None of this is to suggest that Rahm is a cheat, or someone who secretly transgresses the rules on a regular basis without us knowing.

Yet, having looked at the footage again, it is indisputably clear that his ball was not replaced in the same spot – even if he was just “millimetres” off, according to rules official Andy McPhee.

The vivid detail in which Rahm remembered the event in discussion with McPhee on the 13th confirmed that it wasn’t some absent-minded slip of the hand.

So, either it was a deliberate effort to gain an advantage, or, more likely, a misjudgment as he sought to replace his ball as quickly as possible.

McPhee offered an interesting explanation in the aftermath: “The new decision the R&A and USGA crafted, with the full knowledge from the PGA Tour and ourselves, is all about trying to eliminate these fine margins and get to a position where if a player has made a reasonable judgment then the game will accept it if it’s slightly wrong.”

Fair enough. It was ostensibly immaterial to the final result anyway, and I couldn’t help but smile as Rahm instantly responded to being cleared with an eagle at 14.

Also, whether you agree with the ruling or not, kudos must go to the European Tour officials for dealing with the matter so decisively, and ensuring that Rahm and the rest of us could enjoy the remaining few holes of the tournament with complete certainty.

Yet, as against the grain of the recent modernisation of the rules as this may be, I do think this sets an awkward precedent. Where do we draw the line in future?

How many “millimetres” is too many “millimetres”? How much controversy will this implicit scope for rules official interpretation lead to, especially under the increasing scrutiny of television cameras (and emails from eagle-eyed viewers)? And in what other areas of the rules will there now be potential room for exploitation?

These are questions for the custodians of our game to contend with. I just hope that, in the urgent bid to keep the sport current, the moral fibre which sets it apart is not compromised.


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