Sam Burns denied relief in bizarre ruling that could only happen in links golf

sam burns ruling

Sam Burns' ball seemed to defy gravity Saturday morning.


GULLANE, Scotland — Different country, different course, different grass, different … bunker formation. Almost everything we see this week on the PGA Tour is different than the American golf norm, and that was never more obvious than the ruling Sam Burns received on the 10th hole Saturday morning. 

Burns was cruising along in his third round, eight under for the championship and tied for 10th, when his tee shot on the par-5 10th rolled into a deep fairway bunker. In that moment, the 10th went from a birdie hole to a true three-shotter, so long as Burns could escape the sandy lie with his second. 

He did that … sort of. 

Burns caught his second a bit thin from the sand, sending a screamer into the top of the bunker face. It was reminiscent of what happened to Viktor Hovland on the 70th hole of the PGA Championship at Oak Hill two months ago. Only Burns’ ball thumped into the dirt edge of the bunker and then rebounded backward ever so slightly. 

The ball squirmed back from a surefire embedded position to just sort of hang on the lip of one of the rivets in the bunker face. It seemed to be defying gravity, caught up on just enough grass to sit on the edge of the bunker face. Now, what?

That’s when the third round of the Genesis Scottish Open caught its first snag. Burns wanted a ruling on how to move forward. Could he take relief for an embedded ball? One official arrived and quickly began using his walkie-talkie. This wasn’t going to be an easy decision either way. Another official arrived on the scene and began discussing with Burns, mimicking with his arms the type of swing a player would take from that position. A crowd of 10 assembled around the bunker to hear how it would shake out.

sam burns ruling
Sam Burns’ ball seemed to defy gravity Saturday morning. CBS Sports

Soon enough, longtime DP World Tour rules chief Andy McPhee joined the CBS broadcast to break down what viewers were watching at home. 

“All the years I’ve been involved I’ve not seen that one before,” McPhee said. That was comforting, considering a full 10 minutes had lapsed since Burns’ initial strike from the bunker. 

“The top layer of turf, that edge … is that a seam?” McPhee said. That was what needed to be decided.

Many of the bunker faces at links courses are created by layers of sod to create a riveted look. The result is a bunch of seams between the layers, looking like tiny, grassy steps on the way out of the trap. This allows for the faces to remain firm, strong and hold their structure over time against the typically brutal elements that can occur in the U.K. Grass will even grow among the riveted seams.

Well, those seams could be the saving grace for Burns in his search for relief.

“The essence of a seam is that it sits between two pieces of turf,” McPhee said on the broadcast. If Burns’ ball was determined to be in a position where it would crash into a seam after his intended strike, according to McPhee, he would have been given relief. 

The only issue was where Burns’ ball hung up — it wasn’t clear it was on a seam. Plenty of grass had grown at the top of the bunker face, and it appeared that the only part of the bunker that might interfere with Burns’ swing was the edge of the bunker, after contact. Since it wasn’t clear, Burns was denied relief and was forced to play the ball from where it sat … or hovered. He wasn’t thrilled but he accepted the ruling and began to create a stance. 

sam burns ruling
Sam Burns attempting his third. CBS Sports

Burns’ right foot began to wear away at the face of the bunker as he tried to establish some balance.

“The divide between the player and official,” Frank Nobilo said eagerly on the broadcast. “I love it.”

We do, too, Frank. We just get the sense that Sam didn’t exactly love it. He made a swing at the ball, driving it into the face even further, sending it bouncing back into the sand once again. He went on to make triple bogey. 

Sean Zak Editor

Zak is a writer at GOLF Magazine and just finished a book about the summer he spent in St. Andrews.