Golf's newest Rules decision only muddies issues of player integrity, viewer call-ins
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Golf’s newest Rules decision only muddies issues of player integrity, viewer call-ins


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The USGA and R&A, as well golf's other important non-rulemaking bodies, deserve credit for the effort to put forth a new Decision on the Rules of Golf on Tuesday. It was, in part, a response to the highest-pitched-yet backlash against the Rules and the people who administer them, dating back to the four-stroke penalty given in-round to Lexi Thompson on Sunday at the 2017 ANA Inspiration.

On the 17th hole of the third round, Thompson marked her ball before a par putt, replaced it approximately a half-inch away from the original spot and putted out for par. She thought nothing of it, but a fan did, who, while watching some kind of replay on Sunday, notified the LPGA that Thompson had broken the Rules of Golf by not returning the ball to its original spot. (No one really ever does that, by the way, but the spirit of the Rule is to at least make it look close, like within one-eighth an inch.)



The LPGA reviewed the fan's insight, saw Thompson had broken the Rules and, applying the Rules of Golf as written by the USGA and R&A, gave Thompson two two-stroke penalties: one for not replacing her ball, and another under Rule 6-6 for unintentionally, in their view, not signing a correct scorecard.

The LPGA got crushed for days over the ruling, even though they were just using the USGA and R&A's Rules. It was embarrassing. It likely prevented the LPGA from having a popular, marketable champion in their first major of the year. It sparked a conversation -- AGAIN -- about whether fans should be able to snitch on players for rules violations spotted in person or on TV broadcasts.

So, the USGA, the R&A, the LPGA, the PGA Tour, Augusta National, the LET and the PGA of America talked at the Masters. They figured they had to do something about this. They thought about it, realizing sweeping Rules changes are coming in 2019 but they need action now.

On Tuesday, they announced a new Decision of the Rules of Golf (that's not a new Rule, but guidance on how to interpret it) called Decision 34-3/10, which now identifies two standards by which a rules official should determine if a violation discovered on video should result in a penalty.


1. When Video Evidence Reveals Things that Could Not Reasonably be Seen with the Naked Eye. The use of video technology can make it possible to identify things that could not reasonably be seen with the naked eye. Examples of this include: 

 • When a player unknowingly touches a few grains of sand in a backswing with a club in making a stroke from a bunker. 

 • When a player is unaware that the club struck the ball more than once in the course of making a single stroke.  

In such situations, if the Committee concludes that such facts could not reasonably have been seen with the naked eye and the player was not otherwise aware of a potential breach of the Rules, the player will be deemed not to have breached the Rules, even when video technology shows otherwise. See also Decision 18/4. In applying this “naked eye” standard, the issue is whether the facts could have been seen by the player or someone else close by who was looking at the situation, not whether the player or anyone else actually saw it happen.

2. When a Player has Made a Reasonable Judgment. Players are often required to determine a spot, point, position, line, area, distance or other location on the course to use in applying the Rules. Examples of this include: 

 • Estimating where a ball last crossed the margin of a water hazard (see Decision 26-1/17).  

 • Estimating or measuring where to drop or place a ball when taking relief, such as by reference to the nearest point of relief, to a line from the hole through a point or to the spot from which the previous stroke was made.

 • Estimating or measuring whether a ball that was dropped in taking relief was dropped in the correct location and whether it has come to rest in a position where a re-drop is required. 

 • Replacing a lifted ball in relation to a ball-marker or replacing a ball on the spot from which it was accidentally moved.

Such determinations need to be made promptly and with care but often cannot be precise, and players should not be held to the degree of precision that can sometimes be provided by video technology. A “reasonable judgment” standard is applied in evaluating the player’s actions in these situations: so long as the player does what can reasonably be expected under the circumstances to make an accurate determination, the player’s reasonable judgment will be accepted even if later shown to be wrong by the use of video evidence.  

The bodies also announced that they're putting together a working group to figure out what to do about viewer call-ins and how to apply penalties to players which are discovered well after they happen.

Let's just start by indicating that, under this decision, Lexi Thompson probably still would have gotten a four-stroke penalty. She didn't replace the ball properly, and she broke the Rules of Golf. Yes, it did take a high-definition camera, really zoomed in, for a fan to notice that, but Thompson should have known that immediately and properly replaced the ball.

The difference under the new Decision is that instead of just getting popped four strokes for two separate violations, the onus would now have been on Rules officials to hit her with the four strokes or give her no penalty at all. That seems worse. Rules officials are impartial to players; they're married to the letter of the law. However, now they're more empowered than ever to decide if someone deserves a penalty. That comes with the potential of knowing there will be a backlash in being seen as heartless if they decide the player's violation fails both the "naked eye" and "reasonable judgment" standards.

Now, instead of fans cursing their fellow viewer who phoned or emailed in a Rules violation (and, truly, it's not hard to find that contact info; each Tour has a Contact Us page), the fans will curse the Rules official who gets to somewhat arbitrarily decide someone's intent and how close is close enough of an accurate interpretation and application of the Rules. Super.

I was always told that there's no intent in the Rules of Golf. With this Decision, we've gotten away from that notion entirely. There is intent. And that's not necessarily a bad thing, but just ask a prosecutor about trying to determine intent. Manslaughter or murder, someone is still dead.

The good news is that this should clear up concerns about drops. Players tend to consult their peers over drops if a Rules official isn't available, and if they both agree on a reasonable drop (who would collude on a drop?), then we don't need replays and imagined controversies over point of entry.

However, the Decision doesn't change that viewers and fans can alert officials to violations. So many fans think that's abhorrent. I don't, though it's a complicated subject. Golfers are supposed to call penalties on themselves, right? Lexi Thompson didn't in this case. Who, then, is to be the watchdog over the players? Other players? The others in her group weren't paying attention to a mark on an 18-inch putt. No Rules official noticed it on their own. It took a viewer to realize the player had broken the Rules. If a player can get away with micro-infraction after micro-infraction, it adds up over time. Strokes gained cheating (even if it's not malicious).

Of course, the counter is that not every player is shown on TV. A very small fraction of total tournament shots air, so a nit-picking snitch can only catch so many players in the act, right? That is inherently unfair to the others in the field. However, other players can be reluctant to call official penalties on their peers. So much of the peer reaction in response to the Thompson incident was that they had seen others violate Rules but they didn't want fans meddling.

OK, then you call the penalties; you enforce the integrity of the game. Go ahead and make your next 10 years with that person uncomfortable because you cost them money (even though they were really costing you money). Players have "reasonable judgment" to expect not to have to hawk over their fellow competitors to make sure they're not cheating. Golf is hard enough as it is; adding that burden would make the sport unbearable.

So, here's my catch-all proposal for how to deal with viewer call-ins and Rules violations discovered by video.

  • Viewers and fans can no longer report Rules violations. They can tell a player or a caddie, but those are the only two people outside of a Rules official that can call a penalty or ask for a review. (Player phone numbers aren't public, and for good reason.)
  • A Rules official should be in the television truck for a tournament broadcast (they are for majors, for example), and they should review all video of every shot aired. That official would also have access to all camera shots on the course, even the ones that don't make TV. If the official sees something, they act on it without fanfare. If a penalty is applied, it's part of the process. Think of it as the Eye in the Sky in a casino.
  • Penalties cannot be applied after a round concludes. They can be applied in-round, of course -- but not in the middle of the next round.
  • Eliminate intent from any interpretation of the Rules. If a player violated a Rule, they get the penalty. It doesn't matter if they tried to apply the Rule. Knowing the Rules is a part of the game.
  • If we want to give wiggle room on the Rules requiring exact placement of the ball, make that tolerance specific and enforceable.

 

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About the author

Ryan Ballengee

Ryan Ballengee is founder and editor of Golf News Net. He has been writing and broadcasting about golf for over a decade, working for NBC Sports, Golf Channel, Yahoo Sports and SB Nation. Ballengee lives in the Washington, D.C. area with his family. He used to be a good golfer.

Ballengee can be reached by email at ryan[at]thegolfnewsnet.com