Fair or unfair? Dissecting Zach Johnson's bank-shot birdie at Bay Hill

Zach Johnson
@PGATOUR on Twitter
Just when it looked like a bunker shot by Zach Johnson was going to zoom past the hole, it hit the ball of Johnson's playing partner and redirected its path right into the hole for a birdie. Should the ball on the green have been marked?
By T.J. Auclair
PGA.com
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Published: Monday, March 20, 2017 | 10:46 a.m.

In the final round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational on Sunday at Bay Hill, Zach Johnson hit the kind of shot you don't see often.

Playing the par-3 17th hole, Johnson hit his tee shot into a greenside bunker.

When he arrived at the bunker, the two-time major winner was greeted with a fried-egg/buried lie. This meant that Johnson's third shot, with all the sand around the ball, would have virtually no spin at all coming out of the bunker. On Bay Hill's speedy greens, a shot like that typically runs well past the hole, if not off the green.

Johnson's playing partner, Byeong Hun An, meanwhile, also found a greenside bunker with his tee shot. He was first to play and cozied the ball up to within a few feet of the flag, just right of the hole.

Rather than mark the ball, An let it be as Johnson hit his shot.

As expected, Johnson's shot came out hot and looked destined to cruise by the hole, if not off the green all together... until it rammed into An's ball and took a sharp left, rolling into the bottom of the cup for the most unlikely of birdies.

Here's the shot:

An would replace his ball and make the putt for par. However, the Johnson bank-shot caused quite a stir on social media.

Golf Channel contributor Geoff Shackelford was at the forefront of what he called, "a practice that needs to stop."

That practice? When a competitor doesn't mark his ball on the green after a short-game shot, hence giving his playing partner the potential to have a not-so-great shot end up considerably better by hitting the ball that wasn't marked. This perceived unfair advantage, so to speak, goes against the obligation of every competitor to "protect the field."

For the player who is already on the green, there's no disadvantage -- they can replace the ball back to its original position.

Shackelford also mentioned in a tweet that the failure to mark the ball in a short-game shot, "goes on daily. Worse, players who don't play the game are thought of as jerks."

Essentially, Shackelford -- and in fairness, many, many others -- believe this tactic is an unwritten and, most importantly, "unspoken" agreement between playing partners.

Folks in the Twitterverse befuddled by An's failure to mark his ball brought up "Rule 22-1: Ball Assisting Play."

In part, the rule states: "In stroke play, if the Committee determines that competitors have agreed not to lift a ball that might assist any competitor, they are disqualified."

That right there is why this whole scenario must go unspoken.

Most, Shackelford included, pin the blame on the player who fails to mark the ball rather than the player who hit the bank shot.

This is certainly a big-time gray area... particularly for something you rarely see play out. Come on. Even with as good as these players are, what are the chances of a buried lie in a bunker getting an incredible assist like Johnson did on Sunday?

We reached out to PGA Professional Rob Labritz, an accomplished competitor, do get his take on scenarios like this one.

"I don't think it's something where you're trying to help other players, per-say, by not marking," he said. "It's a timing issue. If you're ready to hit your shot and you're off the green, you hit it. If the ball on the green is a hinderance, you ask the player to mark it. But if it's around the cup and you can hit it without asking them to mark it's a little bit of help."

Labritz conceded that a competitor not marking his or her ball could be an "extra edge" for the playing partner, but admitted that -- in the moment -- it's not a conscious thought.

"It's not a top of mind issue," he said. "People aren't trying to protect the field at that point, because you're not thinking from that perspective in that moment. It's where the ball is. I'm ready to hit and the person hasn't marked yet. I'm off the green so I'm entitled to hit my shot if I'm ready and don't see that other ball as a hinderance."

Johnson's shot, Labritz said, was pure luck.

"The shot on Sunday, I was more impressed with Damon's bird dance [Johnson's caddie] than Zach's shot," he told us. "It was one of those things where he didn't hit it great, but he hit it just the right pace off An's ball. It's rub of the green, it happens. Lucky shot, move on to next hole."

As lucky as Johnson was, Labritz noted that it can work the other way too.

"There have been a number of times where the person playing before me hits it in there tight," he said. "Then I hit my shot and my ball lands directly on top of theirs and ricochets way off the green and I have to play it from there while my playing partner simply replaces his ball. It's the rub of the green... It can go either way." 

T.J. Auclair is a Senior Interactive Producer for PGA.com and has covered professional golf since 1998, traveling to over 60 major championships. You can follow him on Twitter, @tjauclair.