Dear GGG: My opponent has just broken match play rules. What do I do?

Gail Rogers

Guidance guru Gail Rogers

THE MATCH PLAY season is never-ending in many clubs, and we all dread the moment when we see our opponent break a rule. What do we say? What do we do? Here’s guidance from USGA rules official Gail Rogers — cool, calm and collected.

Q. Our club match play championship and our intra-club team match play are about to begin. I love match play, but would like guidance on handling a match play rules infraction by my opponent in a way that will not stress me out. Can you help me? 

A. In match play, knowing your options under the rules of golf can remove the stress of handling a rules infraction by an opponent. There are three elements to remember when you are playing a match without a referee to assist you with match play rules and rulings, which is the case for most women golfers (and men too) in club match play competitions:

  • First, you need to understand how to make a proper claim, Rule 20.1b(2).
  • Second, you need to know that you are allowed to ignore a breach of the rules if you choose to.
  • Third, know that you and your opponent may agree on how to decide on a rules question that comes up in the course of your match, Rule 20.1b(1).

CLAIMS

To make a valid match play rules claim, remember two steps. First, the player making a claim must tell her opponent she is making a claim and that she wants a ruling.

Second, she must state the facts on which the claim is based. Simply saying, “You can’t do that,” does not meet the requirement of stating the facts of the claim. Instead, give the facts that you will want reviewed by the committee by saying, for example, “You accidentally moved your ball and did not replace it before you played. I believe you lost the hole.” Adding “Since we don’t know for sure what the answer is, I am making a claim and we’ll get a ruling as soon as possible,” completes the second step.

TIMING

Even a valid match play rules claim has a time limit. When you observe a breach of the rules, a claim must be made before anyone in the group tees off at the next teeing ground. In a case where it’s the last hole of the match or the circumstances for the match play rules claim aren’t discovered until after all the players have left the last green, then the claim must be made before the results of the match are made official. “Official” may mean posted on a scoreboard or reported to a tournament director, depending on the accepted procedure for the tournament. Rule 3.2a(5)

YOU CAN IGNORE AN OBSERVED BREACH

In match play without a referee walking along, you have two options available to you that you never have under stroke play rules. The first: You can ignore a rules violation.

That is because match play is between you and your opponent, and so your decision to ignore the match play rules breach affects only the two of you. If you are already 3 or 4 holes up, you may feel you do not want to inflict more pain on your opponent. You can choose to ignore a breach of the rules that you have observed.

But remember, if you suddenly lose the next few holes, you cannot go back and make a claim. You cannot put the information of the match play rules violation in your back pocket and use it if you need it in the future. Your window of opportunity to make a claim for a match play rules breach that you have observed closes when the first player tees off on the next hole.

YOU MUST REMAIN SILENT

Ignoring a match play rules breach means you cannot talk about it while the hole is in progress. While you are playing the hole, you may not say, “I know you removed a leaf from that bunker near your ball before you played your shot, but I am not going to make a claim.”  Discussing it means you must act on the penalty.

Remember, timing is critical. You are allowed to tell your opponent what she did wrong once the play of the next hole has started. You chose to ignore the rules infraction until the point where a timely claim could not be made; after that, there is no penalty for discussing it.

AN EXCEPTION TO IGNORING A BREACH

Sometimes a match play rules violation cannot be ignored.

When your opponent says, “I just discovered I have 15 clubs in my bag,” you cannot suggest ignoring this breach of the rules or you will both be disqualified. Your opponent must immediately declare her extra club or clubs out of play, Rule 4.1 (c). Then, you complete the play of the hole you are playing, Rule 4.1(b)

After completing the hole, adjust the state of the match by one hole if this is the first hole of the match. The maximum adjustment is two holes no matter how many holes beyond the first hole you have played. This means that if you are 2-up at the end of the 7th hole and the extra club(s) discovery is announced, match play rules give you two more ups and you are now 4-up.

YOU AND YOUR OPPONENT CAN RULE BY AGREEMENT

The second option available without a referee walking along that doesn’t occur in stroke play is the ruling by agreement. Sometimes a rules question comes up in a match and one player or the other thinks she knows the answer. If the two of you agree on the answer, as long as neither of you is deliberately ignoring or misstating a rule or penalty, that becomes your ruling. Even if it turns out that you’re wrong, your agreement stands.

This scenario probably is most common with players used to the old rules of golf and uncertain about changes in things like drop procedures and penalty area options.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Keep your latest Rules of Golf book in your golf bag in case you need to review the procedure for making a claim during a match. If you’re not sure about a rule, see if your opponent knows it better and you can agree on how to proceed. Or, choose to remain silent and let the match unfold. Knowing your options eliminates stress.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Gail Rogers’ original post has been updated in 2021 with notations from the latest Rules of Golf.

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