Brian Harman’s troubles at the US Open set social media alight, but did the American go too far? Our Rules of Golf expert gives his verdict

Turning on social media during a major championship should come with a health warning. Particularly when it comes to the Rules of Golf.

When Brian Harman laid down his wedge as he was preparing to hit his fourth shot, from a collar of greenside rough on the 13th during the second round of the US Open in Brookline, it was soon at work.

He moved his ball, they said. He improved his lie, they exclaimed. It was against the rules, they insisted.

I aim to steer clear of emotion when it comes to assessing whether there is a breach. So let’s take a look at what happened to Harman at The Country Club and I’ll tell you how I’d apply the Rules of Golf if I was an official on site.

Did the ball move?

People tend to get ahead of themselves when it comes to the rules. They click on google, slap in a term, and when the search engine spits something out they think they’ve got the answer.

But when I’m looking at a situation for the first time, I tend to ignore the numbers and subsections. For me, the rules start in the definitions.

If you crank through that alphabetical index, you’ll find there is a definition for ‘moved’. It goes like this: “When a ball at rest has left its original spot and come to rest on any other spot, and this can be seen by the naked eye.”

It also adds: “If the ball only wobbles (sometimes referred to as oscillating) and stays on or returns to its original spot, the ball has not moved.”

I’ve re-run the incident now a dozen times. The ball wobbles but I am happy it oscillates back in place, as the USGA, who reportedly looked at the incident, must have been as well.

Didn’t the club touch the ball?

If Harman had caused his ball to move, he’d have received a penalty stroke for doing so under Rule 9.4b.

It’s here where we also need to go to settle another of social media’s complaints – namely that he touched the ball.

Watching the replay, it’s not clear to me whether he touches the ball with his club or whether laying it in the grass is what causes the ball to oscillate.

Regardless of that, though, Rule 9.4b would only hand out a penalty here if a player lifted or deliberately touched his or her ball at rest.

There is an interpretation to this rule that outlines where a one stroke sanction could be handed out if a ball is deliberately touched but not moved.

One of these is when a player “deliberately touches the ball with a club in preparing to make a stroke”.

But looking at the incident, can you be sure that’s what happened? Given that, as I said, it’s not clear whether the club was even touching the grass or the ball when it oscillated, there is no way I could say there was intent to touch it.

So, again, no penalty.

Were the conditions affecting the stroke improved?

Some commentators focused on this, arguing Harman was pushing down on his club, or applying pressure on it, when he laid it behind the ball when preparing to take the shot.

Rule 8.1b (4) allows a player to ground their club “lightly right in front of or right behind the ball” and not pick up a penalty – “even if doing so improves the conditions affecting the stroke”.

But a player is not allowed to press the club on the ground. The sanction for a breach of this rule is the general penalty (two strokes or loss of hole in match play).

There is an interpretation to Rule 8.1b that tries to spell out the meaning of grounding the club lightly.

It states this is “allowing the weight of the club to be supported by the grass, soil, sand, or other material on or above the ground surface”.

The penalty is triggered if the club is pressed down more than lightly. Again, can we say this happens here?

In the first few seconds of the clip, when the footage is at its clearest, the rough looks like it springs back into place.

And if I scroll it through frame by frame, I can also see he hasn’t fully gripped the club in either instance and that the grass appears to be supporting the club. I can’t see how I could possibly call a penalty.  

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Steve Carroll

A journalist for 23 years, Steve has been immersed in club golf for almost as long. A former captain and committee member, he has passed the Level 3 Rules of Golf exam with distinction having attended the national Tournament Administrators and Referee's Seminar. He has officiated at a host of high-profile tournaments, including Open Regional Qualifying and the PGA Fourball Championship. A member of NCG's Top 100s panel, Steve has a particular love of links golf and is frantically trying to restore his single-figure handicap.

Handicap: 10.9

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