Penalties happen in golf. For the average player, it’s difficult to go an entire round without getting at least one “freebie” or two -- strokes you didn’t actually make, but ones you earned through the magic of the rule book.
It would be wonderful if I, or any instructor, could teach you not to incur penalties, but that isn’t going to happen. Penalty strokes are a part of the game, and you’re going to have them whether you’re a rank beginner or the No.1 player in the world.
Which brings us to the most important lesson you can take away from this week’s RR Donnelly LPGA Founders Cup. Stacy Lewis thought she had scratched her way to a bogey-free 66 on Saturday to climb within two shots of the lead. Then she saw a rules official coming her way.
It turns out that on the 16th hole of the third round, Stacy hit her tee shot into a fairway bunker. As she and her caddy, Travis Wilson, discussed her lie and how the ball was likely to come out, Wilson stepped into the bunker and appeared to bounce on his right foot. A viewer who saw the incident on television called tournament officials, who determined that Wilson had tested the sand in violation of Rule 13-4.
It was a subjective call. Wilson didn’t grind his feet and say, “Yeah, you’ve got about three inches before hitting dirt.” He made a very subtle move. But after all parties saw the incident, the ruling came down and Stacy’s 66 became a 68, and her two-shot deficit became four.
There were several ways Stacy could have responded. She could have gotten angry; she could have called the ruling unfair and dwelled on it for the rest of the tournament; she could have let it rattle her; she could have fallen apart; she could have blamed Wilson and created an unhealthy level of tension between herself and her caddy; or she could have accepted the penalty as an act of fate and been content playing for second place.
Fortunately for her, she did none of those things. Stacy used the incident as added motivation, a trigger to intensify her focus.
That focus – along with her ability to gauge the speed of the greens perfectly all week – gave Stacy the added push she needed. She made nine birdies on Sunday and won her second tournament of the year, a victory that propelled her to the No. 1 spot in the women's world rankings.
There is very little chance that you will make nine birdies in a single round, or that you will become the No. 1 golfer in the world. But you can learn to take the proper attitude toward any and all penalty strokes you incur.
It’s easy to get angry and frustrated by penalties. But overcoming those feelings and turning a penalty into a positive could mean the difference between a good round and a blow-up.
Jenny Judd is the PGA head golf professional at South Shore Harbour and Magnolia Creek in League City, Texas.