A Novel Solution To Rules Controversies

In the first place, the argument is all wrong. It’s not whether television viewers should be able to point out rules infractions. The horse is miles out of the barn on that one. The issue is whether players are punished too severely because those who run afoul of the rules are discovered after their rounds are over by means of television technology.


The latest victim is Padraig Harrington, who found himself on the bad side of a television camera on Thursday morning and the wrong end of a ruling on Friday morning in the desert at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

Harrington had marked his ball on a putting green and when he replaced it, his finger brushed the back of the ball, causing it to move. That wouldn’t be a penalty if Harrington had replaced the ball. However, he thought the ball oscillated and returned to its original position, so he believed he didn’t need to do anything.

After the Thursday round, a television viewer sent in an e-mail to snitch that the ball did, indeed, leave its original position. Harrington had already signed his card, believing he did nothing wrong. He was shown the videotape before the start of the second round, agreed it was a two-shot penalty and was disqualified for signing a wrong scorecard.

Almost the same thing happened at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions when Camilo Villegas was penalized after the fact for removing loose impediments while a ball was rolling down a hill. He was caught by a tweet from a viewer.

What’s great about the Rules of Golf is that we largely depend on the players to enforce the rules by calling penalties on themselves. Nothing in the world is wrong with that system. It’s one of the most attractive things about our game. Except, at least at the elite levels, players are mostly ignorant of the rules. Ignorance never kept a crook out of jail and it doesn’t keep a Tour player out of a jackpot when he breaks the rules – especially now that we have television.

The truth is that Tour players almost always depend on rules officials to guide them in virtually every situation. They will call an official – and hold up play – if they have a simple lateral hazard drop, a rule they learned in junior golf.

Tour players should be ashamed of themselves that they don’t know the rules any better than they do. It’s downright lazy and professionally irresponsible. Each of the world’s major Tours ought to insist that prospective players be able to pass a rules test before they can compete.

If they did, maybe we wouldn’t need television viewers to rat out the offenders. They could, more often, take care of matters themselves. That said, everyone should just get used to the idea that ultra-slow-motion video technology will catch things that the naked eye can’t see.

Such was the case with Harrington. He knew the rule but had time to make an assessment and believed his ball did not leave its original position. But watching the replay, “the ball rolled forward about three dimples and rolled back about a dimple-and-a-half,” Harrington said afterward.

Last May, in Spain, Peter Hanson on the European Tour incurred a penalty that he couldn’t see. In the final round, he double hit a chip shot and this time it was television commentators who discovered the violation with super slo-mo. European Tour officials reviewed the situation and told Hanson about the penalty during the round, which put him two shots down with four holes to play. Hanson birdied two holes coming in and eventually won a playoff and the title.

And here is where the problem lies. Harrington and Villegas were disqualified because their transgressions were found after they signed their scorecards. While the penalty was severe for Hanson, he had an opportunity to recover from his error.

Rule 34-1 allows that players must not be disqualified after the competition is closed if they turn in a scorecard without assessing themselves a penalty for a breech of a rule they were unaware they committed. The close of competition means when the last scorecard is returned in the final round.

Such a breech of the rules carries no penalty on Monday morning but disqualification on the previous Friday morning. That doesn’t seem to engender equity, which is one of the hallmarks of the Rules of Golf.

Two things need to happen to solve this problem. One, every major Tour should have a rules official sit in the television truck during each day’s broadcast. If rules violations are found before the end of the round, players can be penalized without disqualification.

Second, perhaps the USGA and the R&A should look at the definition of the term “competition closed.” All it would take is for the ruling bodies to redefine “competition closed” as when each day’s round is complete. If a rules violation is found before the day’s close of play, the scorecard could be reopened and a penalty assessed.

“I wouldn’t have done anything differently,” Harrington said. Instead, perhaps the rules makers and enforcers should find it necessary to make a change. Once and for all, it’s time to end the arguments.

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