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College golfer sets course record in U.S. Open qualifier, then disqualifies himself

A collegiate golfer played the round of his life ... then realized he'd broken the rules while doing so.

An aerated green like the one that cost Tommy Kuhl dearly. (Getty Images)
An aerated green like the one that cost Tommy Kuhl dearly. (Getty Images) (driftlessstudio via Getty Images)

Major stories out of the world of golf in recent months have focused on the game's darker elements: greed, self-interest, divisiveness. But at its best, golf is a sport where honesty and fair play reign. Here's a story about doing the right thing even when it hurts.

Tommy Kuhl is a fifth-year senior at Illinois, one of the finest collegiate players in the country. He averages just over 70 per round and is coming off a third-place finish at the Big Ten championships. Last weekend, he played in a U.S. Open qualifier at Illini Country Club, and rode the round of his life to a course-record 62. His stellar play in the qualifier moved him a step closer to the U.S. Open; only one more qualifying tournament remains.

There was just one problem.

After his round, Kuhl was walking with teammates when one bemoaned the aerated putting greens. (Golf courses aerate greens — punch holes in the grass — to make the turf grow back stronger. It's necessary, but it also makes putting very difficult.)

As Monday Q notes, Kuhl realized that he'd made a terrible mistake out on the course by repairing not only the marks his ball made landing on the greens, but also aeration marks around his ball. According to the Rules of Golf, Rule 13.1c(2) allows repair of almost any damage on the green, including "all types of damage (such as ball-marks, shoe damage, indentations from a club or flagstick, animal damage, etc.), except aeration holes, natural surface imperfections or natural wear of the hole." (Emphasis is original.) The rule was made to speed up the pace of play of golf, so that players weren't repairing marks all over the green.

For Kuhl, the reality was this: He'd broken the rules of golf, and he'd thus signed an incorrect scorecard. Once that happens, there's only one resolution: disqualification.

“I felt sick to my stomach,” Kuhl told Monday Q's Ryan French. “I knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep if I didn’t tell the rules official.”

He did and was disqualified soon afterward. He'll have to wait another year to attempt to qualify for the U.S. Open. (Other players apparently also repaired ball marks on the course, but did not play well enough to advance through qualifying. The question of why a U.S. Open qualifier was even played on a course with aerated greens is another story entirely.)

This is where defending golf's rules gets tricky, because the letter of the law and the spirit of the law diverge. It's impossible to know how much Kuhl helped himself by repairing the green, but if he'd repaired every mark between himself and the hole, he'd still be out there today. Putting on aerated greens is tricky at best, borderline impossible at worst; the fact that Kuhl still managed a course record is a testament to his skill.

Still, bottom line, Kuhl ran afoul of the rules of golf. He didn't get caught, but he knew he'd crossed the line, and for him, that was enough.