Hawk’s Eye: USGA misses mark with latest caddie-related penalty

Caddie, USGA
A player at the U.S. Amateur received a two-shot penalty after his caddie took a cart-ride from a person he believed to be a USGA official following a bathroom break. Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

With all due respect to the game’s sense of competitive integrity, golf takes itself way too seriously. When Phil Mickelson struck a moving ball at the U.S. Open, for instance, the reaction was one of shock and horror, as if Mickelson had stolen military secrets and sold them to Pakistan.

It was a stupid thing to do, obviously, but when USGA officials started yapping about how Philly Mick broke Rule 14-5 but was judged to have not violated Rule 1-2, every 14-year-old golf fan in America probably turned off the television and ran for the nearest swimming pool. A terrific way to scare kids away from this great game is to deck them with a bunch of legal mumbo jumbo.

First and foremost, golf has to be fun. We can deal with the law at a later date.

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I mention all this because a young man named Akshay Bhatia was penalized two strokes in the Round of 64 at last week’s U.S. Amateur. He would go on to lose the match on the first extra hole, and though the infraction wasn’t the reason he lost, the rule he broke is without question the dumbest I’ve ever heard.

As he played the 14th hole, Bhatia’s caddie, Chris Darnell, hustled off to use the bathroom. In an effort to not slow up play, Darnell then accepted a cart ride to the green from someone he thought was with the USGA — the man was wearing a pullover with those four big letters splashed across the chest.

Of course, the guy was actually a tournament volunteer who must have paid a visit to the pro shop to buy some government-issue apparel. And of course, players and caddies at any USGA event are prohibited from using carts in any way, shape or form. It’s almost as bad as selling military secrets to Pakistan.

Who wears a pullover in the dead of August, anyway?

There’s so much to hate about this rule, I’m finding it difficult to control myself. First of all, a caddie is not a contestant in the tournament. He’s important, yes, but he’s not the one competing, so there is absolutely no advantage to be gained by hitching a ride, whether it’s to the 14th green, the practice range or a hot dog stand in the distance.

Secondly, Darnell surely was trying to avoid slowing down play, which wouldn’t be cool to the matches behind him and probably wouldn’t go over so well with Bhatia, who is 16 years old and has been dominating the junior circuit like nobody’s business. When you’re killing everybody before you graduate from high school, you’re a young man in a hurry.

What blows my mind is that some pretty smart people in pretty high places pore over the Rules of Golf every year, wringing their hands over which laws have become antiquated, inappropriate or just plain ridiculous. And they’ve made changes, especially in recent years, in the name of common sense. You’re now allowed to remove loose impediments from a bunker, which used to land you a 30-day jail sentence and a scolding from your grandmother.

Why on earth would the fine old fellas in USGAville leave the no-ride rule on the books? It’s OK to get transportation from one of them, but not from a volunteer? What difference does it make who’s driving the damn cart? If some aging salt in a blue blazer and a beat-up Gilligan hat offers you a lift, that makes it OK?

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Please. Casey Martin was halfway crippled, and he had to get the United States Supreme Court to allow him to play golf professionally. There’s something very wrong with that — not so much the essence of the rule, but the notion that some people couldn’t remove their heads from their backsides and recognize that Martin was a tough, courageous man with a lot of talent and a pronounced physical disability.

Unfortunately, golf is still governed by those who talk out of both sides of their mouth, then rinse and repeat. We want to make the game accessible, likable and rewarding, then find some blurry mandate that rains all over the picnic. Rules are essential to every sport, especially one that is contested on a 150-acre playing field with lots of trees, hills and places to nudge your ball in the rough, but there’s a lot more nonsense in the Rules of Golf than most of us want to know.

The defense rests. You take your two-stroke penalty and move on, grimacing over the fact that Johnny Law really doesn’t want to hear your explanation. Bhatia will be back for more U.S. Amateurs, maybe even win one, and if he continues progressing half as quickly as he already has, he’ll be on the PGA Tour by the time he’s old enough to drink an adult beverage.

Legally, of course.

All views expressed in this column are those of John Hawkins and do not necessarily reflect those of the Caddie Network.


  1. Spot on with your assessment Hawk. Let’s keep the game fun. Honor and rules are a must in this fickle sport, but I think the curmudgeons at the USGA hit one OB on this call.

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