When Cameron Smith arrived at TPC Southwind on Sunday morning, he was two shots shy of the FedEx St. Jude Championship lead. He was also the betting favourite, leaving sports betting at around +350 to emerge victorious on Sunday night. A lot was at stake – not just Smith’s chances at the FedEx Cup, but also the fact that with a victory he would reach world No. 1 for the first time in his career.
But when Smith arrived on the course on Sunday, PGA Tour umpire-in-chief Gary Young dismissed him. After a brief discussion, Smith was given a costly two-stroke penalty for an improper pinfall he suffered early in the third round. Smith returned to the lineup; now he was 9 under instead of 11 under, four shots behind leader JJ Spaun instead of two.
Everyone seemed to agree that Smith had received the correct penalty (he had broken rule 14.7), but the awkward timing left many questions about how and when delayed penalties should be given.
The infraction in question occurred on the par-3 fourth hole on Saturday. Smith’s tee shot found the water, so he took a drop. But when he fell, his ball came to rest on the edge of the penalty area, at the edge of the red line.
Young said he and other officials were watching the live stream when they saw Smith make his next move. The moment caught their attention as players taking penalties are required to clear the penalty area completely. But Smith’s ball appeared to be on the red line, and the line counts as part of the penalty area.
“Originally we thought, boy, it’s so basic, it’s not even worth asking. It was such a quick sight we had that we were confident he was comfortable playing where he did it from,” Young said.
A Tour official looked into the matter in more detail but, given the uncertainty of the camera angles and the “geometry of the situation”, they assumed that Smith knew the rule and that there was no much to follow.
But another official watched a replay of the show on Saturday night. He decided to raise the issue the next morning. The Rules Committee again looked at the drop and reconsidered.
“After watching and re-watching the replay, we felt it was pretty close to the line and worth checking out,” Young said. “So we took a second look and sure enough we felt he was really close to the line, if not touching and maybe on the line. So it was worth asking the player.
Young said the realization happened around 11:15 a.m. on Sunday morning.
“That’s when we felt it was worth at least having a conversation,” he said. About five minutes later, he found Smith, who was alone near the hall and preparing to begin his preparation. Young called him into his office.
Young said he suspected Smith might disprove what they thought they saw on the show. If he had said he was comfortable playing the ball outside the penalty area and the angle on TV was misleading, that would have been enough to exonerate him. Instead – and to his credit – Smith admitted guilt.
“When I asked him, unfortunately he said, ‘No, the ball was definitely touching the line,'” Young said. “So at that point there is no turning back. It was a moment when I know the player knew the ball was touching the line, he just didn’t understand the rule that the whole ball has to be outside the penalty area and in his penalty area clearance.
Young said Smith fully accepted the penalty. “Rules are rules,” he told Young, and “very calmly” left the office.
Young defended the decision, acknowledging that the timing was not ideal but that they had taken action as soon as they could.
“We have a fiduciary duty to the whole field to follow these things and we did.”
But the decision reignited discussions about whether and when to apply retroactive sanctions. By the time Smith’s penalty was issued, he had spent nearly 18 hours in his position in the standings. While golf officials no longer take calls from chair officials watching the broadcast at home, they still have the latitude to review penalties from the day before. It’s not a freedom that officials use in most other major sports. While people may argue about the speed of “instant” replay, games are generally considered final once the next game has started. The golf score is different in many ways, but the open-ended nature of its replay feels unnecessarily open.
Smith now joins a group of top players – including Tiger Woods, Dustin Johnson and Lexi Thompson – who were handed delayed penalties while in contention. It’s unclear how Smith’s penalty would have been handled differently had he already started his final round when the committee reviewed the situation, but briefing him in real time would have been difficult.
Smith’s penalty also came amid heightened speculation over his playing future. At a pre-tournament press conference, Smith was asked about a report claiming he had signed a contract to join the LIV Tour; The telegraph reported that the deal was worth more than $100 million. He neither confirmed nor denied the report.
“I’m a man of my word and whenever you need to know anything, I’ll be the one to say it,” he said, a non-response that led to inevitable follow-ups. So… was he going? “I have no comment,” Smith said. “I’m here to play the FedEx Cup.”
Smith is said to be unflappable. If the two-stroke penalty rattled him, he certainly didn’t show any signs of it from the jump. He found the fairway, blocked his approach at seven feet and poured the putt for an opening birdie.
Now he was only three behind.