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Ryder Cup Rules explained

With Ryan Moore's final hole win over Lee Westwood sealing a convincing American victory over Europe, last Sunday’s dramatic finish at Hazeltine National Golf Club saw the United States reclaim the Ryder Cup for the first time since 2008.

With both sides fuelling the fiery atmosphere of the home crowd, the scintillating golf played under the most intense pressure, and amid a decibel level more akin to a football match, might have felt a million miles away from the usual week playing on tour. However, it is not just the special Ryder Cup atmosphere which some players might have found unusual, but also the competition’s various match play formats.

Playing at the highest level, the opportunity to play foursomes and four-ball match play on the big stage is a rare occurrence, and prior to the notoriously nervy first tee shot, some players will no doubt have taken the opportunity to refresh their knowledge of the key differences in the Rules.

The main differences between the two formats are, in many cases, obvious to see. In match play, for example, each hole is effectively a separate competition rather than an accumulating score. Played on a hole-by-hole basis, the stroke total for 18 or indeed 72 holes simply doesn't matter in match play as it is more player versus player, or side versus side rather than player versus the course.

The penalties in each format are also different.  In stroke play the General Penalty which applies for a breach of many of the Rules is two strokes, whereas in match play it is loss of hole, although in the main, breaches of the Rules that incur a one-stroke penalty in stroke play still remain a one-stroke penalty in match play.

Sergio Garcia and partner Rafa Cabrera-Bello found their ball in the jacket pocket of a volunteer marshal.
Sergio Garcia and partner Rafa Cabrera-Bello found their ball in the jacket pocket of a volunteer marshal.

Another feature of match play is the concession of strokes, holes or even matches. In stroke play, a player is required to finish out at every hole, however, in match play a player may concede a stroke to his opponent, therefore not requiring them to hole out.

A player may also concede the hole, or the match, and once a concession has been given, it can’t be declined or withdrawn so if a player was to concede a short putt to their opponent, and the opponent then misses, it doesn’t matter as they are still considered to have holed out with that conceded stroke.

With the basics covered, some players will have looked back and remembered some of the more interesting Rules incidents to have happened during Match Play competitions in recent years.

During the 2010 Ryder Cup at Celtic Manor in Wales, Rickie Fowler and his partner Jim Furyk suffered a loss of hole penalty on the 4th hole of their foursomes match when Fowler incorrectly substituted a ball.

With Furyk's drive from the 4th tee finding a very muddy area which was ruled to be an abnormal ground condition, free relief was available for the side under Rule 25-1b. However, rather than retrieving the ball from the mud and cleaning it, Fowler, whose turn it was to play the next stroke, instead took a different ball from his pocket and dropped it within the one club-length area from the nearest point of relief.

Unfortunately for Fowler, Rule 25-1b states that the player is required to “lift the ball and drop it” unless the ball is not immediately recoverable.  In this case, the original ball was immediately recoverable.  By dropping and playing a different ball than the one Furyk had played from the tee, Fowler had substituted a ball when he was not allowed to do so, which in match play resulted in a loss of hole penalty. The mistake put the Americans 2 down through 4 holes, however Fowler managed to salvage a half point in the match against the European duo of Lee Westwood and Martin Kaymer by sinking a tricky five foot putt on the final green.

Brooks Koepka drops his ball after it came to rest in the backpack of the father of his European opponent Thomas Pieters.
Brooks Koepka drops his ball after it came to rest in the backpack of the father of his European opponent Thomas Pieters.

As match play is a head-to-head battle, strategy is all important and it can pay to use the Rules to your advantage.  One such incident occurred during the 2000 Solheim Cup when Annika Sorenstam representing Europe holed her chip shot from just off the 13th green for birdie.

Sorenstam had chipped in from a tough lie 25 feet from the hole, apparently levelling the match in her four-ball clash with Kelly Roberts and Pat Hurst of the United States, only to be told by her opponents to replay the shot when the American pair pointed out she had played out of turn.

Despite being on the green, one of her opponents had noticed that she faced a longer putt than Sorenstam's chip and, ordered the shot to be retaken. Although coming very close to repeating her feat, Sorenstam failed to hole her second attempt, losing the hole to Roberts and Hurst in the process.

Although the incident caused some controversy at the time, the Americans were perfectly entitled to recall the stroke under the Rules. Rule 10-1c states that, in match play, if a player plays when his opponent should have played, there is no penalty, but the opponent may immediately require the player to cancel the stroke and replay it in the correct order.

It is a perfect example of using the Rules to influence the match, as if Sorenstam had not been so successful with the chip the first time around, the American side may well have left her to play the ball from its new position.

Although such Rules did not feature this year in Minnesota, other Rules took centre stage during the 41st Ryder Cup. 

Jordan Spieth removed his shoes and socks to attempt to play from the water hazard onto the green.
Jordan Spieth removed his shoes and socks to attempt to play from the water hazard onto the green.

On the 5th hole of the Saturday foursomes, following a slightly wayward drive from Sergio Garcia, he and partner Rafa Cabrera-Bello found their ball had come to rest in the jacket pocket of a volunteer marshal. As the ball had not been deliberately deflected or stopped by the marshal, who is considered to be an outside agency, they took relief under Rule 19-1a and the ball was dropped as near as possible to the spot directly under the place where it had come to rest in the marshal’s pocket, not nearer the hole.

However, a further interesting point in this case is that under Rule 20-2a “the player himself” is required to drop the ball, and because this was a foursomes match, this meant that the member of the side whose turn it was to play next (Rafa Cabrera-Bello) was required to drop the ball rather than his partner. 

Not to be outdone in finding unusual places with stray drives, during Saturdays afternoon four-balls, again on the 5th hole, Brooks Koepka managed to find his ball at rest in the backpack of the father of European star Thomas Pieters, who just so happened to be taking on the US side partnered with Rory McIlroy. Relief was again taken under Rule 19-1a with Koepka proceeding to drop the ball and find the green with his second shot, but despite the unintentional involvement of his father in the proceedings, Thomas kept his cool, holing a long putt for an eagle two to win the hole.

One of the other more notable Rules incidents occurred on the 16th hole during the Sunday singles.  With Jordan Spieth being 2 down to his European opponent, Henrik Stenson, Spieth’s second shot on the reachable par-5 came to rest in the water hazard just short of the green, but still visible on the water’s edge.

Not wishing to take a penalty drop given the state of the match, Spieth removed his shoes and socks and made his way into the hazard to attempt to play from the water hazard onto the green. However, as he took up his stance with one foot in the water, his actions caused the ball to move deeper into the water.  He therefore incurred a penalty of one stroke under Rule 18-2 for causing his ball in play to move.

Having incurred the one-stroke penalty, and considering the position of Stenson’s ball, Spieth opted not to attempt the unlikely miracle shot from the water and conceded the hole, losing the match 3 &2.

The result of that particular match, thankfully for Spieth, came amidst a surge of American triumphs which saw them steamroller the latter half of the board en route to a decisive 17 – 11 victory. And although players will now be getting back into stroke play mode on Tour, with so many players on both sides putting in stellar performances, it bodes well for an exciting Ryder Cup contest at Le Golf National in Paris in 2018.