The 18 most controversial moments in golf in 2023: LIV, Saudis and rules 

Joe LaCava

Joe LaCava during the second day of play at the Ryder Cup.

Getty Images

Controversial moments of 2023? Hmm. 

How much time do ya got? How much space do we have?

Golf and its actors and actresses, you see, are a serene bunch — until the ball goes astray. Or a ruling is needed. Or a country’s investment group funds a new tour, then strikes a secret deal with the tour that its tour had been waging war with. 

Then matters get spicy.

As they did this year. 

With that, here are the 18 most controversial moments of 2023. 

And yeah, the top spot you most likely already know.   

18 most controversial moments of 2023 

18. Mardy Fish is sabotaged by a fan at a celebrity event 

Recap: On the 18th hole of the American Century Celebrity Golf Championship, Mardy Fish led Steph Curry by three points in the Stableford scoring event — only for a fan to yell during his backswing, leading Fish to hook his drive left. From there, Fish parred, Curry eagled and Curry was the winner. 

And why did the fan shout? On an appearance on the Ryen Russillo Podcast, Fish said the heckler told the group that eventually approached him that he had “bet on Steph to win and so he wanted him to win.”

Full story here.

17. Lydia Ko is hit with seven penalty strokes  

Recap: Lydia Ko, during the final round of the Dana Open, was hit with a whopping seven penalty strokes for picking up her golf ball. And why did she commit the golf no-no?

After a rules misunderstanding, World No. 3 golfer is hit with 7 penalty strokes
By: Jack Hirsh

Here’s where things got a bit complicated. 

A day earlier, players could lift their golf ball, through a preferred-lies decision. So Ko did again the next day — but players could do so only on holes 1 and 10. 

And she was penalized. Seven strokes.  

Full story here

16. Liverpool’s ‘monstrosity’

Recap: The redesigned par-3 had everyone talking at the Open Championship. Including Matt Fitzpatrick’s caddie, Billy Foster.

“There was nothing wrong with the little par-3 they had before, and they’ve created a monstrosity, in my opinion,” Foster told Golf Monthly. “The green is very small. If you land it a foot short, it rolls back into a coffin that’s underground, so deep. This is challenging the best golfers in the world that will be making 6s, 7s and 8s.”

Notably, on day one, Lucas Herbert triple-bogeyed the hole — after starting it tied for the lead. 

Full story here.

15. Keith Mitchell — and a shot gone awry at the Players 

Recap: This had a touch of everything. A tee shot out to the right by Keith Mitchell at the Players Championship. A club pound. A caddie trying to get a look. An air horn. A water ball. A conversation over media rights. 

Better yet, though, just watch:

Full story here.

14. Paul Azinger is dropped by NBC  

Recap: Paul Azinger was dropped as NBC Golf’s lead analyst after five seasons. He had joined NBC as the successor to legendary golf analyst Johnny Miller, but according to the story written by GOLF’s James Colgan, “public opinion turned against Azinger’s folksy, often instinct-driven analysis. On more than a handful of occasions, sharp viewers pointed out that his analysis was, in fact, at odds with easily accessible statistics or information.” 

Who’s next? Stay tuned. Kevin Kisner, in a surprise move, will work as an analyst for NBC’s first two broadcasts, but after that, things remain unknown. 

Full story here

13. Lexi Thompson’s Solheim shank — and a tense interview 

Recap: During Day 1 of the Solheim Cup, in a tied match, Lexi Thompson shanked a chip shot from the right of the green on the 18th hole, and she and partner Lilia Vu lost. Then came this exchange:

Sports Illustrated’s Alex Miceli: “Lexi, could you talk about that third shot on 18? There was some question on what you were trying to do and what you actually did do on the third shot. Could you just go through it for us?”

Thompson: “I don’t need to comment on that.”

Lexi Thompson’s shank was human. A later exchange made things awkward
By: James Colgan

Miceli: “Excuse me?” Miceli said.

Thompson: “I don’t need to comment on the chip. It was a bad lie, and I didn’t hit a good chip, but it was pretty much impossible, so…”

Quickly, a member of the LPGA’s communications staff swooped in to redirect the conversation — but not before U.S. team captain Stacy Lewis offered this:

“That’s a terrible question,” Lewis said.

Full story here

12. Wild post-round ruling costs pro his PGA Tour card 

Recap: In a wild sequence during the final round of the Korn Ferry Tour’s season-ending Tour Championship, Shad Tuten was hit with a two-stroke penalty after his round for a mistake he made on a golf-ball placement on his 15th hole. The ruling, following a video look, moved Tuten from 30th on the season-long points race to 32nd — and only the top 30 earned PGA Tour cards for next year. 

As it was unfolding, analyst James Nitties said this on the Golf Channel broadcast: 

“It makes me sick as a past player.”

Full story here

11. Cheating on the PGA Tour Canada tour 

‘I cheated’: After scoring controversy, pro confesses to wrongdoing
By: Jessica Marksbury

Recap: Justin Doeden admitted to cheating at the PGA Tour Canada’s Ottawa Open. A few days earlier, he had been accused of changing his score on the final hole from a double-bogey 7 to a par 5 after the card already had been signed by his playing partner.

“I am here to confess of the biggest mistake I have made in my life to date,” he wrote on Twitter. “I cheated in golf. This is not who I am. I let my sponsors down. I let my competitors down. I let my family down. I let myself down. I pray for your forgiveness. John 1:9.” 

Full story here

10. Matt Fitzpatrick reports a Collin Morikawa rules gaffe 

Recap: A “pretty complicated” rule. A pro texting an official about it, though only because he was curious about the definition — which then revealed an infraction by his playing partner. An “intense” exchange. And even a small joke. As Tiger Woods returned and Scottie Scheffler won the weekend at the Hero World Challenge, things also took a convoluted, bizarre and possibly far-reaching turn at Albany Golf Course in the Bahamas. 

All over a 9-foot, 5-inch putt. (That missed.)

Full story here.

9. Gary Player wonders: ‘How welcome are we really as past Masters champions?’ 

Recap: During an interview with GOLF’s Josh Sens, in talking about the Augusta National honorary member privileges given to former Masters winners, Gary Player wondered: “How welcome are we really as past Masters champions?” According to the three-time winner of the event, Player is allowed to play the club, but not allowed to bring guests without the company of an official member. 

Wrote Sens: 

If this strikes you as the sort of suffering best soothed by the playing of a tiny violin, Player isn’t going to argue. He’s not asking for your pity. Nor does he feel sorry for himself. “Disillusioned” is more like it, he said.

‘How welcome are we, really?’: Gary Player laments limited club privileges of past Masters champs
By: Josh Sens

“It makes you wonder, How welcome are we really as past Masters champions?” 

… Aside from clearing up any fan confusion, Player said that what he wants is to put things in perspective. The Masters, he said, “is a magnificent tournament.” But the players, more than anything, are what make it so.

“Without them,” he said. “Augusta would just be another course.”

Full story here

8. Patrick Cantlay and slow play 

Recap: At the Masters, after playing in the final group with eventual winner Jon Rahm during Sunday’s final round at Augusta National, Brooks Koepka brought a long-simmering issue back to the front burner.

All thanks to one short exchange:

“You’re a pretty fast player, as we know. Curious your thoughts on pace of play this afternoon?”

“Yeah, the group in front of us was brutally slow. Jon went to the bathroom like seven times during the round, and we were still waiting.”

And a mild firestorm ensued, though the problem of slow play has been around since pegs first went into turf. Ahead of Rahm and Koepka that day were Patrick Cantlay and Viktor Hovland, and Cantlay took the brunt of the blows.

Full story here

7. ‘It’s chicken s**t’: Jason Kokrak blasts Masters officials 

Recap: During Day 2 of the Masters, in his last-ever round at the major after revealing that he would no longer be playing on his former champion status, Sandy Lyle was postponed from finishing his final hole due to a storm.

‘It’s chicken s**t’: Pro blasts Masters officials for spoiling a farewell
By: Nick Piastowski

He had to come back the next day. 

Likely in front of very few patrons.  

Which led playing partner Jason Kokrak to say this about the decision:

“It’s chicken s**t,’” he told   

Full story here

6. Patrick Reed Teegate and Treegate 

Recap: Ahead of the Dubai Desert Classic, Patrick Reed was involved in Teegate — where he flicked a tee in the direction of Rory McIlroy — and GOLF’s Dylan Dethier broke it down here

Then, during the third round of the tournament, Reed was involved in Treegate — where he claimed to have identified his ball in a tree, though Golf Channel’s Brandel Chamblee wasn’t so sure — and GOLF’s Jack Hirsh wrote about it here.  

5. Tiger Woods’ tone-deaf prank 

Recap: During the first round of the Genesis Invitational, after tee shots on the 9th hole, Tiger Woods was photographed handing Justin Thomas a tampon. Wrote GOLF’s Alan Bastable at the time:

Some of that razzing came on the 9th hole, where Woods had blistered a 323-yard drive past both of his partners. As he walked off the tee, Woods cozied up to Thomas and covertly slipped a tampon into Thomas’s right hand — just not covertly enough, because the moment was captured by Cliff Hawkins, a senior field photo editor for Getty Images. One of those photos soon made its way to Twitter — that tweet, from golf-betting expert Rick Gehman, now has more than 10 million views — and by Friday morning, Woods’ off-color prank was making international headlines.  

Tiger Woods’ tone-deaf prank puts damper on otherwise thrilling day
By: Alan Bastable

Many commenters on social media had no problem with what had transpired — LOL, just guys being guys, right? — while others found it unfunny, sexist and offensive. But given Woods’ place in the golf world, it’s hard not to look at the pre-meditated stunt as a head-scratcher. What was he implying? That JT drives it like a girl? That would have been a tone-deaf message in 1923, let alone in 2023.

Woods later apologized. 

Full story here

4. Brooks Koepka and the ‘five’ gesture  

Recap: Did Brooks Koepka let playing partner Gary Woodland know what club he hit during the first round of the Masters, a violation of the rules? Or didn’t he?

Judge for yourself:

Masters officials eventually cleared him. 

Full story here

3. Rollback for some — then rollback for all  

Recap: In March, in an attempt to curb distance in the game, the USGA and the R&A announced they would be looking into rolling back the golf ball — for just professionals and top amateurs. 

Seven months later, though, everyone else was added to the plan. 

In November, they announced that the golf ball would be dialed back for all. It will take effect in January 2028 for professionals, and January 2030 for recreational golfers.

Full story here

2. Ryder Cup hats and the Marco Simone parking lot  

Any other year, this would have been No. 1. The biannual event had everything — including golf. Yes, most of the controversy came away from play, and especially so on Saturday.

To briefly catch you up on the proceedings on the penultimate day of action:

— At Marco Simone, fans had been waving hats at Patrick Cantlay, who wasn’t wearing one during play, and the reasons for not are dependent on whom you ask. (Did he want to get paid for playing at the biennial event? Did he not want to get a tan line for his upcoming wedding? We may never know for sure.) Then, on the second day of the event, in the afternoon, the American team of Cantlay and partner Wyndham Clark played Rory McIlroy and Matt Fitzpatrick of Europe. And Cantlay dropped a lengthy putt on the 18th.

Rory McIlroy’s hidden-camera parking lot skirmish sparks Ryder Cup drama
By: Sean Zak

— Then, Joe LaCava, Cantlay’s caddie, started waving his hat. He got close to McIlroy, who had yet to putt. Then there words. Then McIlroy and Fitzpatrick missed putts, and the American duo won. Then there were more words. 

— Then McIlroy got into a shouting match in the parking lot with Jim “Bones” Mackay, the caddie for American Justin Thomas. 

— Then that ignited McIlroy. On the final day of the event, McIlroy defeated Sam Burns, and the Europeans won the Cup. Then McIlroy talked about it all. He said LaCava’s actions on the green were disrespectful. Then everyone else talked about it. 

1. LIV Golf, PIF and the PGA Tour 

Yeah, you knew this would grab the top spot. The subject alone — with the back-and-forth before the June 6 funding deal between the Saudi Arabia Public Investment Fund and the PGA Tour, AND the back-and-forth afterward — could fill out a top 10 (25? 50? 100?) list. 

With that, here a few memorable moments that we covered this year, in chronological order:

In January:

— LIV secured a TV deal

— Greg Norman called Tiger Woods “a bit of a mouthpiece for the PGA Tour.”

— Nick Faldo called LIV “meaningless.”

In February:

— Phil Mickelson argued over Twitter

— Butch Harmon said Tour players should be thankful toward LIV

— Rory McIlroy reflected on his “dead in the water” statement

Why an economist who talked with Greg Norman doesn’t think LIV will survive
By: Nick Piastowski

— An economist who talked to Greg Norman didn’t think LIV would survive

In March:

— Fred Couples called Phil Mickelson “a nutbag.”

— Gary McCord called out LIV’s “steaming hot s**t mess.”

In April:

— Jim Nantz took a swipe at LIV

— PXG founder Bob Parsons rebuked LIV Golf

Harold Varner slammed LIV pros who said they left for LIV to “grow the game.” 

In May:

— Lee Westwood slammed the DP World Tour after his resignation. 

— Phil Mickelson ranted at the USGA over four days. 

— The PGA of America’s chief executive officer was critical of LIV

Brandel Chamblee and Brad Faxon debated over whether LIV players should be in the Ryder Cup. 

— Brooks Koepka’s coach, Claude Harmon III, unloaded on golf media

— Brandel Chamblee and Phil Mickelson duked it out over Twitter

In June:

Saudi deal, health and regret: 9 takeaways from Jay Monahan’s private media talk 
By: Nick Piastowski

The deal was announced on June 6.  

— PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan took a medical leave of absence a week later. 

In July:

— Jay Monahan returned from his absence with an explosive memo.

— PGA Tour officials appeared before the Senate.  

In August:

— Tiger Woods and PGA Tour players seized more control of the Tour. 

— Jay Monahan privately met with selected media members and named his biggest regret.  

— A book alleged Phil Mickelson lost $100 million in gambling.

In November:

— LIV announced changes.

— Frank Nobilo, via the Five Clubs podcast, said golfers are overpaid

Rory McIlroy resigned from the PGA Tour’s policy board. 

— The PGA Tour announced player changes.

— LIV released its 2024 schedule.  

— Tiger Woods put the PGA Tour on notice.

In December:

— Jon Rahm left for LIV.

— The PGA Tour made an investment decision

— Tony Finau squashed LIV rumors.

— A group of PGA Tour players hired lawyers and asked for answers on the PIF negotiations. 

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