Early Friday at Wentworth: Grace stands firm on ruling; Poulter putting problems
By Stephanie Wei under European Tour

I have to say that you wouldn’t believe the self-restraint I’ve exercised in not using a headline playing off the pun, “Grace under fire.” Because it’s definitely staring me down at the moment. I mean, it’s RIGHT there for the taking, but no, I refuse to give in and I don’t want to talk 30 minutes working it into the *perfect* way to describe Branden Grace’s “controversial” drop in a bunker during the first round of the BMW PGA Championship.

There was quite a bit of outrage from viewers, commentators and players who watched the situation play out on par-4 13th hole at Wentworth Thursday evening. Grace hit his approach into a greenside bunker, which left him with a plugged lie on the upslope — it was less than ideal and I doubt the best bunker player in the world could’ve done anything but make contact with the sand and hope it rolled back to a normal lie in the bunker.

After Grace dug his feet into the sand, as you do before hitting a bunker shot, he stepped back and called over rules official Mark Hill. Grace said that his feet were touching the rubber matting that is placed below the sand, which meant he received a free drop. The result was Grace then faced a routine bunker shot instead of the original impossible plugged lie on the upslope. He played the shot and hit it to 10 feet and made bogey.

“It was ridiculous,” said Paul McGinley, former Ryder Cup captain who was commentating on Sky Sports. “If you twist your feet enough you’re bound to eventually reach the bunker lining. That means anytime a player wants relief from a poor lie he can simply twist his feet until he reaches the bunker lining. That can’t be right.”

2016 Masters Champion Danny Willett chimed in from his hotel room, via Twitter:

Interesting enough, Willett’s childhood friend and former caddie Jonathan Smart, who quit on him mid-tournament last month, is now looping for Grace. Hmmm. I’ll leave it at that.

Grace was forced to defend himself following his first and second rounds.

“I actually knew the ruling from a couple of years ago in China at the HSBC (WGC-HSBC Champions), Grace said after shooting a four-under 68 Thursday, via Jamie Corrigan’s report in the Telegraph. “My ball was found outside the bunker, but the only stance I had was inside the bunker and the same thing happened. I tried to take the stance, I didn’t create a stance in that instance. When I took the stance, there was only one or two inches of sand and my foot kept sliding on the material, the rubber, underneath the sand.

“A rule is a rule, and I took advantage of the rule there, and it helped knowing the rule in some respects.

“Fortunately for me, I got away with a good drop but I still made bogey.

“The rules are there for a reason. Sometimes it works in your advantage, and sometimes it doesn’t. In this case it did.

“I can understand if some people criticise you for standing in the middle of the bunker and going too deep, but if you’re standing on the upslope it’s not always easy getting a stance.

“It’s quite a steep upslope there. I was trying to get a stance with my right foot, but my left one I didn’t have to do too much. The right one was sliding down most of the time and then obviously getting down into the sand I was touching the rubber. A rule’s a rule, and that’s exactly what the rules official is there for.”

I have no problem with the ruling. As Grace noted, he knew the rule and sometimes they can work to your advantage. I fully support this statement. In junior golf, we frequently had to attend rules clinics and I remember officials repeatedly emphasizing the importance of knowing the rules because they can help you in certain cases.

I know the counterargument would reference something about the integrity of the game, blah, blah, blah, but that could be used in almost every ruling deemed to improve a player’s position. Yes, I understand the argument that players could dig their feet into a bunker every time they have a crappy lie and claim they hit the rubber sheeting underneath, but I don’t think that holds water.

In difficult, very firm conditions on yet another warm (80 degrees!) and brilliantly sunny day, Grace posted a one-under 71 Friday morning for a 36-hole total of five-under. With the afternoon wave still on the course, Grace is currently tied for a share of fifth. He had to once again defend himself and discuss the criticism he received and stood firmly by his previous statement (and rightly so).

“Sometimes the rules work in your favor and sometimes they don’t,” he said. “I did not write the rule book. That’s why the rules officials are out there. He was there for a reason. It was his call at the end of the day. He thought it was a fair question from my side, and you know, that was the ruling. It states like that in the rule book. So you know, the rule was there for a reason, and you know, I used to my advantage.”

Grace noted he received a message from McGinley Friday morning, saying his strong critique was nothing personal against Grace, rather the rule itself.

“I actually received a message from Paul this morning saying he’s got nothing against me at all,” he said. “They didn’t criticize me for taking the drop. He just doesn’t agree with the ruling. That was a little bit nicer to hear from him. So that made looking over the situation a little bit easier.”

Indeed, a professional and courteous gesture from McGinley.

Grace dodged a question that opened the door for him to hit back at Willett, who isn’t exactly the most popular player on the European Tour.

“There’s always going to be a thing like that,” said Grace when asked if he’d preferred Willett to have spoken to him in person rather than slam him on Twitter. “If it wasn’t him, it would have been a spectator or something like that. You always get some good vibes and some bad vibes. That’s just the name of the game. And it is what it is. I don’t think I did anything wrong. Like I said, the ruling was there. The rules official was there and he made the call. So that’s just the end of the story.”

Here’s more from the transcript, which generally reiterates what’s been said:

Q. Wasn’t playing on your mind today?
BRANDEN GRACE: It was a little bit this morning. Obviously waking up, I’m one of the guys that always likes to go on social media and Twitter and those things. There’s always somebody that writes something negative, whether it’s a player, whether it’s some guys that like you or some guys that don’t like you in the crowd, that always happens. But that did caught me off my guard a little bit this morning. But like I said, the guy was there for a reason, the rules official and it’s his call at the end of the day.

The only thing bad thing about it was — it happened a couple years ago in China. I think the rules official actually came to me afterwards and said they only changed that rule three years ago.

Normally it was part of the course, part of the golf course and then they changed it to it’s interference with the swing rules, the stance, or something like that. The only reason why I brought it up is because it happened to a couple of the other guys. Otherwise I would never even have thought about asking about the situation.

But knowing how it turned out a couple years ago, I thought, well, you can always take a chance. It’s either going to go in your favour or it’s not. I was right in the ruling there. Like I said, it was still his call.

Q. You’re feeling that you weren’t gripping properly?
BRANDEN GRACE: The right foot wasn’t the issue. Obviously as you all know, the higher you go in the bunker, the less sand there is. It was pretty much four, five centimetres of sand at the top but getting your stance, it is pretty hard to get in there. Here it feels like a rubber beneath the sand and that was the thing, and then sometimes you slip, especially a situation like that where you have to really try to hit the shot as hard as you can. Ask the question and he said yes.

Q. There was no crowd problem today?
BRANDEN GRACE: No, not at all. I must say, there wasn’t — I mean, obviously there was a couple of players that said some stuff but a couple of guys came up to me on the putting green, as well. Peter Hanson said he had a situation like that yesterday but he didn’t even think of asking for the ruling.

So he said to me this morning, what he knows now, if he gets in that situation, then he might ask. I’m not sure — I’m sure I’m not going to be the last one, and you know, there’s a lot of controversy in the rulings these days. Some goes your way and some don’t. Just the way it goes at the moment.

Q. The rubber matting, is it too near the surface?
BRANDEN GRACE: I was really surprised to get it there to be honest because the bunkers, feels like there’s a lot of sand in the bunkers this week. But like I said, it’s normal, the higher you go up the lips, the less sand there’s going to be. Because the guys, they rake it down and it falls to the bottom. So that was probably just the situation.


Ian Poulter decided at the last minute (somewhat) to make the trip to Wentworth after the rollercoaster that he dealt with recently with losing his Tour card but then Brian Gay discovering an error on the Tour’s part that resulted in a reversal and also a spot in The Players Championship. Poulter took full advantage at his second chance, so to speak, and finished in a tie for second at TPC Sawgrass.

Poulter opened with a disappointing four-over 76, but bounced back with a three-under 69 Friday morning, which should be good enough to make the cut (top 65 and ties). He was extremely frustrated afterwards, though, noting he hit 17 greens and needed 34 putts. Which is completely bizarre and not “normal” Poulter stats. And I completely understand and empathize with having so many good looks and only shooting three-under when hitting 17 GIR — any professional or high-level player would consider that unacceptable.

“I had 34 putts,” said Poulter. “So I’m a little warm still. I’m really frustrated to be honest. I’ve come over here to play well. My game’s in shape.

“The savior to this golf course this week is going to be the pins on the front of the greens, because the greens are firm. I don’t think I did a very good job yesterday with leaving it the right side on some of those pins. And because of that, made a couple of silly, sloppy mistakes. Should have got up-and-down a couple of times. Didn’t putt great. Didn’t putt good at all today, and you know, I’ve had chances all the way down the stretch coming in. You know, I really didn’t take them.

“I holed a 25-footer on 10, which was great. I holed a 15-footer for eagle on the par 5, and from there in, I really good opportunities to birdie all the way back into the clubhouse and I didn’t do it.

“It was absolutely shocking today. Not good enough. Unacceptable. I don’t know how many words to describe how poor I thought it was to be honest with you. It was pathetic, it really was. It was unacceptable. The putting’s not good enough. My game’s in shape. I’ve hit 17 greens in regulation today on a tricky golf course. So I’m pleased about that.

“And I’m pleased that I haven’t flown all the way across the pond to not be playing golf at the weekend, because I would be seriously pissed off if I was sitting at home this weekend. I mean, I would be not happy.

“So job well done today but it not good enough. It’s just simply not good enough. Not from how I’ve been playing.”

Poults being Poults when asked if he had a remedy for his putting woes.

“No,” he said. “Have you?”

Well, no.

“You’ve been watching it,” said Poulter. “No, it’s frustrating because I’m not holing the putts I feel I should. When you hit good golf shots on tricky golf holes and you hit it to eight feet and you want to take advantage of it, and play the hole in three when guys on average are going to play it in 4.4, you’re not doing your job when you’ve broken the back of the hole with two great shots and you’re not taking advantage where you should. I didn’t take advantage at all today. 25-footer and a 15-footer, that’s it.”

Poulter, an Arsenal fan, saw the silver lining in having an early tee time Saturday morning — he’ll be done in time to watch the match at Wembley. He could potentially even make it to the game in person. He wavered and considered it, but added he didn’t know how he felt about going to a stadium at the moment, referring to Monday’s horrific terrorist attack in Manchester during an Ariana Grande concert.

At the moment, Scott Jamieson is leading after posting a five-under 67 for an eight-under 36-hole total. Belgian Thomas Pieter is one back at seven-under. Lee Westwood and Henrik Stenson are at five-under, along with Grace, for a share of fifth, among others. It’s a decent leaderboard shaping up for an exciting weekend at Wentworth.