Today, with what only can be called lightning speed, the USGA and R&A changed the Rules of Golf by enacting a decision intended to limit the use of video review and, the game’s governing bodies hope, stem the tide of rulings prompted by viewers calling in infractions. The change goes into effect immediately and will apply to players teeing off this week in the PGA Tour’s Zurich Classic of New Orleans, the LPGA’s Volunteers of America Texas Shootout, and the European Tour’s Volvo China Open.
According to Thomas Pagel, USGA senior director of rules, who spoke with The Post: “This decision is introducing two new standards. One is a ‘naked-eye’ standard, which says if the player didn’t feel and couldn’t have seen a breach, and the person standing next to that player couldn’t have seen the breach, either, there should not be a penalty as that player should not be held to a higher standard than every other player on the course simply because we became aware of the breach through television evidence.”
The most recent and glaring example of this was the 2016 U.S. Women’s Open when Anna Nordqvist dislodged two grains of sand on her backswing from a fairway bunker during a playoff with eventual winner Brittany Lang. No one other than a Fox cameraman standing behind Nordqvist noticed, and even he had to take a handful of looks. Nordqvist was penalized and Lang could play conservatively on the difficult par-5 18th hole at CordeValle knowing that she had a two-shot cushion.
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“The second standard is called a ‘reasonable judgement standard,’ ” Pagel said. “That essentially says: As players, we’re expected to make a lot of decisions, a lot of estimations, and we often do those pretty quickly. If we’re applying the rules correctly and doing so in a reasonable manner, then the player should not be held to a higher standard (than everybody else) if television evidence shows that they got it just slightly wrong.”
This isn’t being called the Lexi Thompson Standard, in part because the USGA and R&A had been discussing it for five years before Thompson improperly replaced a marked ball during the third round at the ANA Inspiration and received a four-shot penalty on Sunday (two for playing from a wrong spot and two for signing an incorrect scorecard) – a penalty prompted by a viewer’s e-mail and that likely cost her a major championship title. Pagel even steered clear of that as an example.
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“Where balls last crossed the margins of water hazards is one example,” he said. “Nearest points of relief is another example. When you’re taking relief from a cart path, the nearest point of relief is, technically, a spot. But when you and I do it, we might get (that spot) a little bit wrong. Somehow if television goes in and shows that a player missed the spot by half an inch, should that player be held to a higher standard than you and I, especially if that player is acting in a manner that we all agree is reasonable?”
The obvious answer is “no,” just as a player who improperly replaces a marked ball by a fraction of an inch while standing to the side, late in the day, with no advantage gained, and no intent to deceive, should not be held to a higher standard than 90 percent of the players who never made it onto television.
“We’re just trying to equalize things,” Pagel said. “If television can review information that was not known, and could not have been reasonably known by the players, (those players) should not be held to a different standard (than the rest of the field).”
The two organizations also announced the creation of a working group – made up of representatives from the PGA Tour, the LPGA, the European Tour, the Ladies European Tour, and the PGA of America – to review and make recommendations on further issues involving video evidence, especially when and how to accept call-ins.
“These are items we’ve grappled with in the past but that we need to revisit,” Pagel said. “Things like sources of information. Should the rules limit the sources of providing facts? What about scorecard issues? Should there be a time when a competition might still be open but scorecard issues for a round might close? These are all topics that have been discussed within the golf community for the last couple of weeks, but there are trap doors around each corner. We want to make sure that we’re thoughtful so we don’t rush to conclusions that have unintended consequences.”
The Thompson ruling, which LPGA officials got right, drove the timing of this announcement. The USGA and R&A typically take years to institute changes, even obvious ones. This one came down at warp speed.
“We’re very intentional,” Pagel said. “The reason is: There are unintended consequences for every rule change. You need to take the time to think these matters through. But we’ve been engaged in this rules modernization process, so we’d already had these discussions. When we were all together at The Masters, we said, ‘Look, we know we’re comfortable with these standards, and have, in fact, proposed that they be part of the rules. Should we continue to wait, or should we make them part of the rules now?’ (The answer) was unanimous. Every person in the room said, ‘Let’s do it now.’ ”
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If it’s never too late to do the right thing, it’s never too early, either. The USGA and R&A acted quickly and decisively, a change that most fans will find refreshing.
“None of us like controversy,” Pagel said. “None of us like to see these unfortunate situations. If there’s a way for us to address this now, let’s do it. That’s what you’re seeing from the USGA and R&A.”