BMW PGA Championship: Tough rulings don’t require high tech help

Apr 6, 2017; Augusta, GA, USA; Branden Grace hits from a bunker on the 2nd hole during the first round of The Masters golf tournament at Augusta National Golf Club. Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 6, 2017; Augusta, GA, USA; Branden Grace hits from a bunker on the 2nd hole during the first round of The Masters golf tournament at Augusta National Golf Club. Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports /

A pair of high-profile rules decisions at the BMW PGA Championship showed that golf can still police itself properly on the biggest stage.

The BMW PGA Championship has again raised a Rules of Golf specter. Hardly two months have passed since Lexi Thompson was hit with a four-stroke penalty for playing her ball from the wrong spot at the ANA Inspiration. That ruling, of course, was only administered thanks to a viewer calling it in after seeing it on TV.

The Thompson incident set off a chain of events that ended with golf’s governing bodies instituting a “naked eye” rule, limiting video replay. A couple of high-profile rulings at this week’s BMW PGA Championship, however, are proving that golf can still handle its own business.

Ernie Els and Branden Grace were both near the top of the leaderboard in Thursday’s first round at Wentworth. Both players faced situations that could literally only be handled on the honor system. And, with varying amounts of controversy following, both men handled it flawlessly.

Els ‘wouldn’t be able to live with’ himself any other way

Of the two decisions made Thursday, the Els call is the least controversial, but that’s only because of how he handled it. Facing a potential plugged lie on a bunker’s edge at the par-5 12th, the “Big Easy” hit every mark. He let his playing partners know what was happening, marked his ball, then put it back as close as he physically could.

The 47-year-old veteran proceeded to chip in for a huge eagle. Then he talked to a rules official, and volunteered a two-stroke penalty for playing from the wrong place.

You read that right. Els did everything he possibly could to follow the rules, then called a penalty on himself because, essentially, he felt bad about it.

Ernie Els BMW PGA Championship
Mandatory Credit: Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports /

"“I just felt uncomfortable by the way the ball came out. The ball came out way too good, so I felt I didn’t quite probably put it (back) exactly where I should have,” Els said after the round, adding, “I know deep down the ball wasn’t quite where it should be and I wouldn’t be able to live with myself."

Els’s penalty wound up bringing him in at one-under 71 through 18, five shots off the lead. A Friday 73 sent him into the weekend at level par, tied for 31st place. Had that eagle remained on the card, he would be in a five-way tie for 19th.

It’s not a huge difference at the moment, but it could be come Sunday afternoon. Who else but Els could handle it with such class?

Grace’s controversial call questionable, but handled as well as possible

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As much love as Els is getting today, Grace is still dealing with the fallout from his first round. Grace, like Els, made eagle at the 12th to move into a tie atop the leaderboard. A wayward approach on the 13th, however, left Grace with a plugged bunker lie.

This is where things got interesting. Grace, as far as I can tell, dug his feet in deep to brace for the stroke to come. Here, he claims, his feet touched the material under the sand, causing him to lose his balance.

Grace called over a rules official, who examined his lie before granting Grace a free drop, setting off a firestorm of response on Twitter. Grace made bogey on the hole, but considering where he was, it’s likely that, without assistance, a double or worse was in the cards.

When you look at the bunker (video available via Sky Sports), it’s obvious Grace was digging quite a lot. What you can’t know is where the line is drawn between “necessary” and “looking for a drop”.

Still, Grace did what he was supposed to do, regardless of any “ulterior motives”. He made his call, got a judge, and went with his ruling. If the official on the ground can’t be trusted, who can?

Decisions like those at the BMW PGA Championship should be the standard going forward

Four years ago, I railed against the Tiger Woods penalty at The Masters, just as I have against the Thompson penalty. There are plenty of officials on course at every big event. If the governing bodies want more, they can get more. But the fact remains, golf is best when it is policed by its own players.

You won’t see LeBron James or Steph Curry calling their own fouls in the NBA Finals. You certainly won’t see either coach asking for a replay that could hurt their own team. Technology is great, but at the end of the day, good old fashioned honesty is even better.

Next: Ranking the four WGC Championships

These two decisions from the BMW PGA Championship show that we don’t need armchair officials. Trust players to police themselves, back them up with sound officiating, and let the lowest score win.