The Masters: Penalties, Rulings & Controversies

This article originally appeared in 2016 and uses the Rules of Golf in effect at that time.

The Masters is the first Major of the year and for many, it’s their favourite tournament to watch. From the time CBS host Jim Nance says, “Hello friends” to the green jacket ceremony on Sunday evening in the Butler Cabin, there’s a comfortable familiarity to the Masters.

From year to year, nothing ever seems to change, everything is as it should be. And that’s exactly the way the members at Augusta National want it to be. They manage the tournament with obsessive control. Their mantra must surely be, “No Surprises.”

Yet, it doesn’t always happen the way it’s scripted. Players are human, the tension is palpable and mistakes sometimes happen, leading to penalties, disqualifications and controversies. Following are eight notable Rules situations from our Masters history book:

What a Stupid I Am!

Most readers are probably familiar with the fate that befell poor Roberto De Vicenzo of Argentina at the 1968 Masters. Everyone watching the tournament believed that De Vicenzo had tied American Bob Goalby at 11-under par for the tournament and the two were headed for a playoff. Unfortunately, Tommy Aaron who was marking for De Vicenzo had put him down for a par 4 on the 17th hole instead of a birdie 3 and the Argentine failed to notice it when checking his scorecard. He signed for the higher score and under the Rules of Golf, it had to stand.

The result was that the De Vicenzo’s official score was -10 giving Goalby his first and only Green Jacket.

When asked about the error afterwards, all de Vicenzo could say, was, “What a stupid I am!”

The Only Slow Play Penalty in the History of the Masters

Guan Tianling is the only player ever penalized for slow play at The Masters.
Guan Tianling is the only player ever penalized for slow play at The Masters.

In 2013, Augusta was all abuzz at the site of fourteen year old Guan Tianling from China, who had qualified for The Masters by winning the Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship. After an opening round 73, Guan was on the back nine Friday when his group of Ben Crenshaw and Matteo Manassero was approached three different times and warned that they were out of position by John Paramor, a European Tour rules official. Finally on the 17th hole, Guan was advised that he was being assessed a 1-stroke penalty for slow play turning his par 4 into a bogey 5. Guan made par on 18 for a 75 and a two day total of 4-over par. It was touch and go while Guan waited for other players to finish but at the end of the day, in spite of his slow play penalty, Guan made the cut right on the number, making him the youngest by more than two years to ever make the cut in a major championship.


Larry Nelson is the last player disqualified from the Masters. It happened in 1992. Nelson had shot 73 in his opening round using a brand of irons that were deemed non-conforming by the USGA. It was the first time Nelson had ever used the irons in competition. The Rules of Golf stipulate that a players’ clubs must conform to approved specifications and each year the USGA publishes a list of conforming clubs.

Don’t Touch that Sand, Luke

In the opening round of the 2014 Masters, Luke Donald was attempting to play his third shot from the greenside bunker on the 9th hole. Unfortunately he failed to extract his ball and before he played his next shot, Donald touched the sand with his club and received a two-stroke penalty for violating the Rules. He scored a quadruple bogey on the hole and eventually missed the cut by two shots!

This Could Only Happen at Augusta

The 2004 Masters was a thrilling duel between Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els but it only came about that way because of Augusta National pride. On the 11th hole, Els hooked his tee shot into the woods where it came to rest in loose branches that had fallen from trees during a recent ice storm. Typically, that would be an unplayable lie for which no relief is given. And that’s the way the on-site referee ruled. However, getting a second opinion is possible under the Rules of Golf. In this case, the Masters Competition and Rules Chairman  claimed that “any loose debris in the impeccably maintained Augusta National must obviously be there for imminent removal by the greenskeeping staff and that relief could therefore be taken.”

The Tiger Drop

Tiger Woods takes his drop on the 15th hole from the wrong spot

No ruling in recent Masters memory was more hotly debated than the decision made in 2013 following an illegal drop by Tiger Woods on the 15th hole during the second round of play. Tiger’s third shot from the fairway crossed the pond in front of the green, struck the flagstick and rebounded back into the pond. Under the Rule, Tiger had two options for relief. He could either drop a ball “as near as possible to the position of his last shot” or “drop a ball behind the water hazard, keeping the point at which the original ball last crossed the margin of the water hazard directly between the hole and the spot on which the ball is dropped, with no limit to how far behind the water hazard the ball may be dropped.”

Unfortunately Tiger mixed up the two options and dropped a ball two yards behind the original spot. At the time nobody on the course questioned the drop and he recorded a bogey on the hole. Several people watching on TV apparently called in but the Rules Committee looked at the replay and didn’t see anything amiss and never questioned Tiger when he completed play.

Only later in the evening when Tiger acknowledged at a press conference that he had chosen to drop back a couple of yards so if he hit the exact same shot, it wouldn’t strike the flagstick, did alarm bells go off. It was widely reported that Woods would be disqualified for signing an incorrect scorecard – one which omitted a two stroke penalty for playing from the wrong spot.

However, the Masters Committee ruled that Woods shouldn’t be disqualified for signing an incorrect scorecard when he had no idea that it was incorrect and the Committee had not asked him about the incident or advised him of any penalty.

Many of you probably remember the heated debate that ensued Friday night and then again on Saturday morning, particularly between Nick Faldo and Brandel Chamblee. Faldo argued that Woods should withdraw, on the basis that’s what Bobby Jones would do. Chamblee was harsher in his assessment and just wanted Woods DQ’d.

Prior to the third round, the Committee ruled that Woods would receive a two stoke penalty and be allowed to continue. The Rule was later amended to allow a degree of leniency in exceptional cases such as this one.

Before the King was the King

Back in 1958, Arnold Palmer was just another Tour player. He had eight wins to his credit but no majors. And he certainly didn’t have an army at that point.

The final round of the Masters that year had Palmer vying for the title with Ken Venturi. As the two played the par-3 12th hole, Palmer was in front by a shot. Rain had soaked Augusta National the night before and the embedded ball rule was in effect.

In 1958, Arnold Palmer received a questionable ruling that helped him win his first green jacket.
In 1958, Arnold Palmer received a questionable ruling that helped him win his first green jacket.

Palmer’s tee shot landed between the green and the back bunker and partially embedded in the wet soggy ground. According to newspaper reports at the time, events unfolded as follows:

Palmer sought relief from the rules official at the 12th but was told he was not entitled to a free drop. He played the ball, flubbed his second shot, then chipped onto the green for his third shot. He two-putted for a double-bogey five. 

At that point, Palmer decided to play a second ball. Going back to the original spot, he dropped another ball and, from a much better lie, chipped it close and made a par.

Palmer and Venturi continued play as tournament officials discussed which score should stand.

Venturi made par and was either one ahead or one behind, depending on which score was allowed to stand for Palmer.

On the 15th hole, tournament officials advised Palmer that his par would be the official score and he went on to record his first of four victories at The Masters.

In his 2004 book called Getting Up & Down, Venturi wrote that he felt Palmer had improperly played the second ball.

“You can’t do that. You have to declare a second before you hit your first one,” Venturi said he told Palmer at the time. “Suppose you had chipped in with the other ball? Would you still be playing a second?”

Venturi is correct.

Rule 3-3a, Doubt as to Procedure states: In stroke play, if a competitor is doubtful of his rights or the correct procedure during the play of a hole, he may, without penalty, complete the hole with two balls.

After the doubtful situation has arisen and before taking further action, the competitor must announce to his marker or a fellow-competitor that he intends to play two balls and which ball he wishes to count if the Rules permit.

The competitor must report the facts of the situation to the Committee before returning his score card. If he fails to do so, he is disqualified.

Get Out of the Way, Jeff

Canadian golf fans will vividly recall 2003 when Mike Weir became the first Canadian to win The Masters. His thrilling playoff victory over Len Mattiace has achieved legendary status but the details of that final round may be a bit fuzzy.

In all likelihood, American Jeff Maggert should have been putting on a Green Jacket that Sunday night but for two holes he played earlier in the day. Maggert missed the playoff with Weir and Mattiace by five shots but was eight over on just two holes, thanks to penalty strokes.

Jeff Maggert attempts to get out of a fairway bunker on the 3rd hole.
Jeff Maggert attempts to get out of a fairway bunker on the 3rd hole.

Weir entered the final round that year trailing Maggert by two shots. On the par-4 3rd, Maggert hit his ball into the fairway bunker. When he attempted his approach, the ball hit the lip of the bunker and ricocheted back, striking Maggert in the chest.

According to Rule 19-2b, that’s a two-stroke penalty. It occurs when the ball accidently hits a player, his caddie or his equipment.

Maggert made triple bogey.

Over the next eight holes, he closed the gap on Weir on two occasions but could never quite catch him. Then it all came apart on Amen Corner.

On the par-3 12th hole, Maggert’s tee shot ended in the back bunker on a downhill slope. His next shot rolled across the green, down the bank into Rae’s Creek. Given that it’s a water hazard (not a lateral hazard), Rule 26-1 provides two options for relief under the penalty of one stroke. Maggert could drop another ball as close as possible to his original spot in the bunker; or go to the other side of the water and drop a new ball, on a line with the flag and the spot his ball entered the hazard. Maggert chose option 2 and proceeded to chunk his fourth shot into the water. When all was said and done, he recorded a quintuple bogey 8 on the hole.

Maggert played 5-under on the other 16 holes and recorded a very strange scorecard: 5 birdies, 11 pars, no bogies, 1 triple bogey and 1 quintuple bogey. It was the penalties that denied him a Green Jacket.


Over the years, penalties and controversies have become part of the history of The Masters. Watch this week to see if any new stories can be added to the legend.

Peter Mumford
Peter Mumford is the Editor of Fairways Magazine. He's played over 500 different courses in 21 countries and met some fascinating people along the way. He's also a long-suffering Toronto Maple Leafs fan.

5 thoughts on “The Masters: Penalties, Rulings & Controversies

  1. Do you remember which hole Speith got a ruling about some metal covers interfering with his swing during the final round (2016)?

    1. I believe it was the 15th hole. He was on the left side of the fairway and partially blocked by the trees.

  2. Can you clarify the ruling on 15 for Hideki when his ball found the pond on 16.
    Getting a drop closer to the hole in line with where the ball entered the pond seems odd. I would have thought he
    might go back no closer to the cup (i.e. across the pond on 16 on hit a flop shot or would need to go back to the 15th fairway and reload.
    Some say he walked away from his point of entry along the 16th fairway towards the 16th green which would be further from the flag but a long way from the point of entry.
    Can you explain the ruling.?

    1. Hi Ted – I’ll have to look at the video again to be clear on what he did. I believe the Rule allows him to A) drop 2 club lengths from the point of entry and no closer to the hole, which moves him toward the 16th green or as you point out, B) he could go across the pond on 16 or C) re-hit from the 15th fairway. I think he chose A and maybe it just wasn’t clear on TV. However, just to be sure, I’ve reached out to a Rules official for his input. I’ll let you know.

    2. Here’s what Dave Colling, a Rules Official for Golf Ontario and Golf Canada had to say: With regard to your question, from what I understand, the pond on the 16th hole is marked as a yellow penalty area for the play of the 16th hole, but, by Local Rule, it is a red penalty area for play on the 15th hole.

      As a red penalty area, a player has the option to drop a ball within 2 club lengths of the point of entry that is no closer to the hole

      I’m sure the rules official on that hole made sure his drop landed in the proper relief area

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