Phil Mickelson didn’t know this golf rule. Here’s why he was confused
In case you missed it, the governing bodies instituted a slate of new rules on Jan. 1 of this year.
Among the biggies: you may replace a damaged club during a round, provided you didn’t ding it up through abuse; if a ball at rest is moved by natural forces after being dropped, and comes to rest out of bounds, the ball must be replaced and played from its original spot; and players are no longer penalized for failing to put their handicap on their scorecard in stroke play. Hurrah!
If you were watching Phil Mickelson’s featured group coverage from the PGA Championship on Friday, you might have been reminded of one more of the 2023 rules changes, the one that relates to the back-on-the-line relief procedure, most often used for penalty area and unplayable ball relief. Under the amendment, players may drop their ball anywhere along a line extending from the hole through the spot where their ball last crossed the penalty area; the ball must come to rest within one club-length of where it was dropped, and if it hops closer to the hole within that club-length radius? No biggie. Leave it be!
Simple, right? And that was kind of the point. Previously the stipulations around the back-on-the-line dropping protocol were more nuanced. The new rule was rewritten to lead to less confusion.
Assuming, that is, golfers are aware of it.
Mickelson, for one, was not.
On Friday, after hooking his tee shot on Oak Hill’s bruising par-4 6th into a marshy penalty area right of the fairway, Mickelson deemed his ball a goner and began prepping for a drop. (My colleague Sean Zak broke down the whole episode in fabulous detail here.) He looked like a golfer very much in command of the rules as he put a tee in the first cut of rough along the line where his ball had crossed into the penalty area. Then he placed a second tee in the fairway a couple of club-lengths to the left of where he had stuck the first peg. The six-time major winner was all business.
“Two club-lengths on red, correct?” he said to his playing partner, Rickie Fowler, referring to the red-staked penalty area.
Fowler, seemingly also unaware of the rule change, shot Mickelson a thumbs up.
Then things got really interesting. As Mickelson was preparing to play his next shot, a rules official appeared and alerted Mickelson of his improper drop.
But Mickelson wasn’t having it.
“I don’t think that’s right,” he said. “In fact, I know it’s not. You get a full semicircle on every drop.”
Well, yeah, until Dec. 31, 2022, you did. But no longer.
“Not going back on line,” the official countered.
“You mark your spot, and then you get a full club length,” Mickelson said, still incredulous. A few moments later, he added: “I appreciate you stopping me and making sure I don’t make a mistake, but I don’t think that’s accurate. I think you get a semicircle on every drop.”
Mickelson thought wrong. And when a second official, by way of radio, said, “That rule changed,” Mickelson finally began to come around.
“This year?” Mickelson asked. “I never heard that.”
“It’s okay, you just dropped improperly,” the second official said. “You can go ahead and move it back. You can operate back on the line and drop wherever you want to. But it’s going to be along that line.”
“Thanks for stopping me,” Mickelson said. “I appreciate your help. Thank you.”
You might be tsk-tsking Mickelson for not knowing the rules, but in his defense the back-on-the-line relief procedure has changed twice in the last four years. Before 2019, the protocol mirrored what it is today. But from 2019 until the end of ’22, golfers taking this type of relief had to drop their balls in the semi-circle-shaped area that Mickelson referenced Friday.
As part its rules modernization efforts for 2023, the governing bodies realized that they had complicated matters by altering the back-on-the-line relief rule — also, most golfers had continued to stick with the former, simpler procedure anyway — and thus the rulesmakers reverted the protocol to the old standards.
Sensible move. As was the PGA rules official’s decision to intervene in Mickelson’s messiness. Had Mickelson played on after having taken an incorrect drop, he’d have been assessed a one-stroke penalty that ultimately would have cost him a weekend tee time at Oak Hill.
Instead, Mickelson made the cut on the number — and learned a new rule to boot.