That awkward moment when a PGA Tour player is told they’re being penalized because a fan called in and reported seeing a rules violation.
It seems like it’s been happening more and more in recent years — really, since Camilo Villegas was disqualified for unwittingly violating the Rules of Golf in the 2010 Hyundai Tournament of Champions.
Not only have more players been assessed penalties thanks to fan call-ins, but the PGA Tour has been relatively inundated by fans who think they’ve spotted a violation. Rarely, they’re right. More often than not, they’re wrong.
Surely, the PGA Tour would love to eliminate the nuisance of these fan calls, but they have a few problems.
First, the Rules of Golf provide that it’s OK to do, but blame the PGA Tour for setting the precedent in the first place. In the 1980 Tournament of Champions at La Costa, television viewers heard Tom Watson giving advice to Lee Trevino. That’s a violation of the Rules of Golf. A fan called in, the PGA Tour listened and assessed a two-stroke penalty. Watson still won.
Two years later, Ron Streck broke off a tree limb to clear his path. Not reported by Streck, a TV fan did for him. Two strokes.
Both of those penalties were phoned in on the same day, saving Watson and Streck from disqualification for signing for an incorrect score. Craig Stadler wasn’t so lucky in 1987.
In the third round of the ’87 Andy Williams Open, Craig Stadler used a towel to kneel on to hit a shot underneath a tree. Stadler thought he was protecting his pants from hilarious grass stains. Instead, he was breaking the Rules of Golf. The fan that alerted the PGA Tour, however, didn’t get their attention until the final round on Sunday. Since Stadler signed for an incorrect score, as he didn’t apply the two-stroke penalty that should’ve come with using the towel, he was disqualified.
The Stadler incident is what set up the ugliest part of the precedent: that a player could be disqualified for a rules violation they seemingly did not notice or weren’t aware of making.
The second issue for the PGA Tour brass in sending those viewer calls to voicemail is that fans like it. It creates controversy. It gets people talking about golf, wondering how our sport could allow fans to influence rules officials and how these guys continually can’t seem to apply the rules correctly.
Don’t think for one second that if the PGA Tour considered call-ins bad for business that they wouldn’t stop them.
Perhaps the biggest issue, however, is that, truly, fan call-ins are good for the game.
The PGA Tour does not have a rules staff large enough to have an official with every group, every round, every tournament. Even if a rules official was placed in the television truck, as has been suggested in by the likes of John Feinstein, they would not be able to review every shot caught on film. The logistics of monitoring every shot is darn near impossible.
Having some armchair rules officials, then, is a small price to pay to do a better job of protecting the field. Of course, like most insurance policies, fans cannot cover every player. Not every shot is televised. That puts top players at a disadvantage compared to their comparatively anonymous cohorts. The potential rules foibles of Roberto Castro are not going to make it on air. They certainly will for the likes of Tiger Woods.
Then again, what happened to Tiger Woods last week at the BMW Championship had nothing to do with fans. Freelance cameramen with PGA Tour Entertainment shot the footage that implicated Woods in Oscill-gate. That’s what cost him two shots, not a fan with an eagle eye.
Every single one of Tiger Woods’ movements — not just shots — are caught on film by one of the hundreds of media that can follow him for any given round. If he breaks a rule, he will be caught, or at least questioned.
That’s the double trouble for someone like Woods, who not only has every part of his day on the golf course televised, but he also has more people following him around in real time than any other player in the field. He has the most eyes on him.
So, then, why not allow the phone-ins to continue and simply beef up the PGA Tour rules staff to better handle these situations, involving Tiger Woods or not?
Step 1 is to assign a rules official to Tiger Woods for every round. He has a unique atmosphere around him anyway, including his own security detail, so giving him an official assigned with protecting him as much as the field should be a given.
Step 2 is to create a roving pool of rules officials who can respond quickly to fan call-ins. When rules officials are made aware of footage that implicates a player and requires applying a penalty, the official should interrupt the player’s round and apprise them of the situation.
The final step is to modify the Rules of Golf to give players the benefit of any doubt about their integrity. A player should not be disqualified for a penalty discovered by a fan — remote or in person — unless it is apparent that they broke the rules on purpose. Meanwhile, players should be required to know and expected to properly apply a baseline of the Rules of Golf. With how many rules and decisions of the rules there have been over the years, expecting a player to know them all is like asking someone to know every Supreme Court decision by heart.
A plan like this will go a long way in affording the PGA Tour, its officials and players some comfort in how the rules are to be understood and applied, while allowing fans and the field to feel like everyone is under equal scrutiny.