Sergio Garcia may not have handled the drama at the Wells Fargo Championship as well as he could, but was he within his rights to be frustrated? Our rules expert Steve Carroll explains the situation
One of the most important tools in a rules official’s arsenal is a stopwatch. It’s probably the one piece of equipment I’ve used the most when refereeing.
Think about it. A player gets three minutes to search and find a ball before it becomes lost. But how do you accurately measure that if it’s not being timed?
When the foraging begins, the referee on the scene starts the clock ticking. And when the sands run out, so does the time for looking.
But defining when the hunt for the ball begins is the key, and that’s why Sergio Garcia was inadvertently penalised at the Wells Fargo Championship.
To recap, the Spaniard hooked his drive at the 10th at TPC Potomac into a red penalty area – a marsh flanked by thick rough. He got there and went on to find his ball but the rules official on the scene deemed the three minutes allowed to do so had expired and the ball was lost.
Despite arguing the referee had started the search time too early, Garcia took penalty area relief for one stroke and opted for the back-on-the-line option.
He then hit his third and would make par on his way to a 3-under 67.
The PGA Tour, through senior tournament director Steve Rintoul, later offered a clarification on the situation after reviewing video and discovered an “inadvertent error” by the referee.
So let’s try and break down why that happened. Rule 18.2 says a ball is “lost if not found in three minutes after the player or his or her caddie begins to search for it”.
There is an interpretation to the definition of Lost that states it again: “The three-minute search time for a ball starts when the player or his or her caddie (or the player’s partner or partner’s caddie) starts to search for it.”
Focus on the words “begins to search” and “starts to search”.
Rintoul’s clarification revealed that “as Garcia entered the penalty area, a referee located on the 10th hole started a search time clock, as it appeared a search for the golf ball had begun”.
The problem was it hadn’t. “Unbeknownst to the referee, the players in the group were told by a TV spotter that the ball was on the far side of the creek, and that point, Garcia spent a considerable amount of time trying to access the other side of the creek.”
Garcia had not begun the search, as he hadn’t yet reached the area where his ball may have been located.
“This was not in clear view of the referee due to other players in the group playing, so the time clock was still running on the search, when it should have been paused,” Rintoul added.
All the time Garcia was trying to get to the area – to start the search – that clock was still running and, when he eventually found it, the “referee’s three-minute search time had expired”.
At that point, the ball is treated as lost and Garcia was told that. So the former Masters champion then made that decision to take penalty area relief.
Rintoul continued: “Subsequently, the Rules Committee reviewed video from the situation after the ruling and discovered the inadvertent error by the referee who was not aware the player was not searching for the ball on the other side of the creek.
“To clarify, the time spent by Garcia trying to access the other side of the creek should have delayed the start of the search time clock, and the ball would still have been ‘in play’ if not for that error”.
Would Garcia have played the ball as it lies? He may have just taken penalty area relief anyway, but the point is he didn’t have the option to do so.
Rintoul also said Garcia was informed of the developments after his round and that under the “Rules of Golf, Garcia’s score does not change despite this clarification”.