A referee came to Phil Mickelson’s rescue at the PGA Championship. Should that have happened and what should you do if you see someone about to commit a breach?

“Is it part of a rules official’s job to be proactive before a rule is broken?” It was an interesting sideline that arose on social media after a referee saved Phil Mickelson from picking up a costly penalty during the second round of the PGA Championship.

A brief recap for those who weren’t paying attention. Lefty was taking back-on-the-line relief after his drive at the 6th found a swamp at Oak Hill during the second round.

What he didn’t know was that rule had changed – at the start of 2023 – and that his plan to give himself two club lengths of relief had resulted in him taking an incorrect drop.

These days the spot on the line where the ball first touches the ground creates a relief area that is one club length in any direction.

Mickelson briefly questioned the referee before getting a second opinion and then thanked him when it turned out he’d been unaware of the rules change.

But it got people thinking – should the rules official have stepped in at all? And what would happen if you did the same in your monthly medal?

Let’s start with the referee. The answer is found in the Committee Procedures in the big Official Guide to the Rules of Golf.

Referees don’t have to warn a player they are about to break a rule, but to “prevent a player from getting a penalty it is strongly recommended that a referee should do so in stroke play whenever possible and in match play, when the referee has been assigned to one match for the entire round.”

An official who volunteers information on the rules “is acting fairly as they would try to do so uniformly to all players”.

What about if it’s in your club competition? Rule 1.3b (1) says players are responsible for applying the Rules to themselves, to recognise when they’ve breached a rule, and be honest in applying their own penalties.

If you know someone has breached a rule, you should tell them, or their marker, or the competition committee, and as promptly as possible.

If you don’t you can actually be disqualified, under Rule 1.2a, if your committee decides what you did was “serious misconduct contrary to the spirit of the game”. That’s because you should protect the field and the interest of all players in the competition.

Giving information to other players on the rules does not count as advice, as it’s classed as “public information”, so you can tell your playing partner if they’ve taken an incorrect drop.

What you can’t do in stroke play, though, is decide rules issues by agreement. Rule 20.1c says: “The players are encouraged to help each other in applying the Rules, but they have no right to decide a Rules issue by agreement and any such agreement they may reach is not binding on any player, a referee or the committee”.

If you find yourself in this spot, you’ve got to raise the problem with the committee before returning your scorecard. If you’re uncertain what to do when playing a hole, you can play two balls.

This does not apply in match play, however, where players can decide a rules issue between them. What they agree is conclusive even if it turns out to be incorrect under the rules – as long as, Rule 20.1b says, they “did not agree to ignore any Rule or penalty they knew applied”.

Have a question for our Rules of Golf expert?

Despite the simplification of the Rules of Golf, there are still some that leave us scratching our heads. And as I’ve passed the R&A’s Level 3 rules exam with distinction, I’ll try to help by featuring the best in this column.

You can read all of Steve’s Rules of Golf explained columns here.

What do you think? Have you saved a player from a Rules of Golf calamity, or has a referee come in to prevent you from picking up a costly penalty? Let me know with a tweet.

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. Steve is currently playing: Driver: TaylorMade Stealth 2 3-Wood: TaylorMade Stealth 2 Hybrids: TaylorMade Stealth 2 Irons: TaylorMade Stealth 5-A Wedge Wedges: TaylorMade Hi-Toe 54 and 58 Putter: Sik Sho Ball: TaylorMade TP5

Handicap: 11.3

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