Varner Penalized In Official-Involved Controversy

The Rules of Golf struck again during the first round of The Players Championship, and the two-stroke penalty assessed to Harold Varner III could very well end up making the difference between the playing the weekend and missing the cut. 

In a season dominated by rules headlines, Varner’s predicament may be the most bizarre yet.

Warming up on the range at TPC Sawgrass prior to his first-round tee time, Varner cracked the face of his driver. Varner contacted rules officials, explained the situation and let them know he wanted to start his round with 13 clubs with the understanding that his team was scrambling to get him a new driver that was fit for play.

All of that was above board and permissible under the Rules.

Varner’s issues arose as a result of his wanting his new driver head to be put on the shaft he had been using. Rule 4 states that players are not allowed to assemble or adjust equipment on the course during competition. 

While Varner’s adjust got him a new driver head, Varner kept the shaft with him. After a subsequent discussion with officials on the 11th tee, Varner’s second hole of the day, he left the club shaft on the tee box for his team member to pick up and take to get his new driver assembled. 

Unaware of the situation, the walking official with the group picked up the club and returned it to Varner thinking it had been left behind by mistake. When the club head was delivered, Varner and his caddie screwed the new head into the shaft they had, which broke Rule 4.

“The clubs were interchangeable, so he took the head off and had the shaft,” PGA Tour vice president of rules and competition Mark Russell said. “He was going to put on the driver head, who he sent a representative to obtain and bring back.

“Harold and the caddie were aware of (the shaft being returned by the walking official), so when they brought the head out and assembled it out there, it broke Rule 4. Can’t do that. They don’t want clubs assembled and adjusted on the golf course, so that’s the reason for the rule.”

The rule is in place as a result of the interchangeable and adjustable nature of today’s equipment. Should a player get out in competition and realize they could benefit from tinkering with the shape bias or loft of their clubs, that could result in an advantage over the field. 

However, in this case, there was no intention to gain an advantage. It was a practice in miscommunication and unfortunate club construction. Were the shaft to have been left on the tee and the club had been assembled on the range or in the locker room, there would have been no penalty, but Rule 4-1b states a player cannot “build a club from parts carried by anyone for the player during the round.” 

As it was, Varner’s par on the par-5 11th hole was turned into a double bogey, resulting in him shooting a 2-over par 74. The projected cut after the first day of action was even par.

“Harold was trying not to do anything wrong. It’s just a situation where the lady scorer, I don’t know what the situation was, if she thought she was doing something nice or something,” Russell said. “But when they were aware of that, there are very strict rules that you can’t basically alter the golf clubs, the components on the golf course during the round.”