USGA clarifies how bizarre rules violation from November could have been avoided

Rory Sabbatini was DQ'd from the RSM Classic.

Rory Sabbatini will likely never make the same mistake again.

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Fans of the Rules of Golf — or just sticklers for the rulebook — likely remember the weird scenario that played out for Rory Sabbatini five months ago.

Sabbatini was disqualified for using a 3-wood with reflective stickers on the club face during the first round of the RSM Classic. How could it have been avoided? How about not using that club! Thank you, Capt. Obvious. There’s a but more to the story. Thanks to an April 1 quarterly update from the USGA and R&A, we have more clarity on that rule.

To jog your memories, Sabbatini had been testing his 3-wood’s performance prior to his round, and used reflective stickers on the club face that aid the measurement of various metrics key to golf performance. The stickers are called “fiducials,” and they help capture where particular sections of the club face are throughout the swing. You can learn more about them here

The tiny clubface sticker that DQ’d Rory Sabbatini? Here’s why pros use them
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The trickiest part of Sabbatini’s penalty was that these stickers almost surely do not benefit performance in any way. The stickers are placed outside the perimeter of what many manufacturers would call the ‘sweet spot’ and so his contact with the ball that day likely never even brought the stickers into play. Unfortunately for him, the Rules of Golf don’t stand for it. 

According to Rule 4.1a(3), stickers like that are considered an external attachment to the club, and it is thereby deemed non-conforming equipment. Using a club that is non-conforming means disqualification. Simple as that. 

Any confusion in this instance can likely be attributed to either 1) pros thinking stickers are not external attachments, or 2) pros not feeling comfortable altering a club once their round has begun. The answer to No. 1 is yes, stickers make clubs non-conforming, an issue that is more common these days as players continue to use camera-heavy launch-monitors to measure every aspect of their games. As for No. 2, in most instances when pros hit their first shot of the day, they know they cannot readjust their drivers, alter the loft angle of their putters, etc. But in this odd case, Sabbatini could have. It just had to take place before he made a stroke with that club.

The most recent quarterly clarification from the USGA and R&A states that Sabbatini could have altered the form of his 3-wood mid-round by ripping those stickers off at no cost, so long as those stickers were removed prior to using the club. No penalty. No disqualification. Just simply adjusting his club back to its typical, original state. Below is the clarification:

“During a round, if a player discovers a non-permissible external attachment on their club (such as a sticker on the clubface), it may be removed without penalty and the club may be used to make a stroke so long as the club now conforms.”

The clarification, which feels obvious in what it addresses — literally pointing out the stickers issue — was shared by the PGA Tour with its members earlier this week. 

If Sabbo had paused before his first 3-wood strike and taken off those measly stickers, you wouldn’t be reading this article right now. But like a lot of rulings in golf, it requires one sacrificial player to deal with the letter of the law for the rest of the Tour to take note.

And as circumstantial as the equipment section of the Rules of Golf can be, this one was worth pointing out, both by us and the Tour. Sabbatini would have loved a redo, because his disqualification came after a four-under 68. 

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