We must forgive Rory Sabbatini now, five months later, for accepting his penalty so quickly. The Rules of Golf, when applied by a governing body, are often endorsed without question.
But Sabbatini’s self-reported penalty from last fall – in which he was disqualified for using a 3-wood with reflective stickers on the club face – didn’t exactly have to end the way it did, according to clarification recently provided to players by the USGA and R&A.
To jog your memories, Sabbatini had been testing his 3-wood’s performance, and used reflective stickers on the club face that aid the measurement of various metrics key to golf performance. The stickers are called “fiducials,” and they help capture where particular sections of the club face are throughout the swing. You can learn more about them here.
The trickiest part of Sabbatini’s penalty was that these stickers almost surely do not benefit performance in any way. The stickers are placed outside the perimeter of what many manufacturers would call the ‘sweet spot’ and so his contact di lui with the ball that day likely never even brought the stickers into play. Unfortunately for him, the Rules of Golf don’t stand for it.
According to Rule 4.1a (3), stickers like that are considered an external attachment and the club is thereby deemed non-conforming. Using a club that is non-conforming means disqualification. Simple as that.
The confusion in this instance was that pro golfers know they cannot deliberately change the form of a club during a round. When pros hit their first shot of the day, they know they cannot readjust their drivers, alter the loft angle of their putters, etc. But in this odd case, Sabbatini could have.
A recent clarification from the USGA and R&A states that Sabbatini could have altered the form of his 3-wood mid-round by ripping those stickers off at no cost. No penalty. No disqualification. Just simply adjusting his club back to its typical, original state. Below is the clarification:
“During a round, if a player discovers a non-permissible external attachment on their club (such as a sticker on the clubface), it may be removed without penalty and the club may be used to make a stroke so long as the club now conforms. “
The clarification, which feels obvious in what it addresses – literally pointing out the stickers issue – was shared by the PGA Tour with its members earlier this week.
It’s is only once a player notices the club has an external attachment like stickers and continues to use the club that it becomes a penalty worthy of disqualification. If Sabbo had paused before his first 3-wood strike and taken off those measly stickers, you wouldn’t be reading this article right now. But like a lot of rulings in golf, it requires on sacrificial player to deal with the letter of the law for the rest of the Tour to take note.
And as circumstantial as the equipment section of the Rules of Golf can be, this one was worth pointing out, both by us and the Tour. Sabbatini would have loved a redo, because his self-reported violation came after a four-under 68.