Jordan Spieth's 21-minute ruling on Royal Birkdale's 13th hole in the final round of the 2017 British Open Championship took a long time to unfold, even by golf standards, but the whole thing was completely legal. It was just complicated. In fact, Spieth's drop on the driving range -- which was in-bounds, while the 10th fairway wasn't from the ninth hole -- involved invoking three different rulings under the Rules of Golf to get where he did.
Let's explain how the ruling unfolded and why it was legal in every way.
First, Spieth hits a drive on the 13th hole that Golf Channel later estimated was 99 yards offline from the center of the fairway. Spieth got an incredible break, per Matt Adams, that the ball struck a passer-by (walking his dog, not even a spectator) and landed on the large dune to the right of the fairway instead of in gorse bushes. Had the ball landed in the gorse, it may have never been found, forcing Spieth to go back to the tee box with a stroke-and-distance penalty to hit 3 with his second tee shot. That would have likely led to 6 or worse.
Since Spieth could find the ball, he could declare an unplayable lie. Under the Rules of Golf, a player who declares an unplayable lie has three choices when they accept the one-stroke penalty that comes with it:
- They can replay the ball from the original spot (re-tee it, in this case)
- They can take a drop two clublengths from the original spot, no nearer the hole (that would've been in gorse)
- They can take a drop as far back from the original spot as they'd like, keeping the original spot between their new line and the hole
Spieth chose the third option because, once he knew the driving range was in-bounds, it afforded him a chance to hit from clean grass toward the hole and only lose one shot. But how? The line Spieth chose wasn't keeping in line with the original spot and the hole. That's where the third part of the ruling comes into play. Spieth's line worked out that, if he went far enough back, he could drop into or near a TV tower or two equipment manufacturers' trucks which were parked off the driving range. By dropping in those areas, Spieth could then get additional relief from these "temporary immovable obstructions," meaning Spieth would get what's called line of sight relief so he wouldn't have to hit over or around these trailers. That entitled him to extra relief on the range, and that's ultimately where he dropped the ball.
After caddie Michael Greller raced forward to get some kind of yardage for Spieth, he was carrying the bag and standing atop the dune to give his guy some kind of aiming marker. However, under the Rules of Golf, Greller couldn't remain there to "line up" his player through the swing, so Spieth shouted at him to move. Then, with the other clubs he chose not to use discarded to his back and right, Spieth hit what he thought was a 230-240-yard shot. He came up of the pot bunker near the green, made bogey.
And the rest is history.