Golf is probably the only sport where spectators (including television viewers) can directly impact the competition.   It has become commonplace for viewers to report possible rules violations, which sometimes leads to the assessment of penalties and even disqualification if the violation is confirmed after the player has signed his scorecard.  Since there is no time limit for tournament officials to investigate a rules violation, conceivably a player could be disqualified on Sunday for an incident that occurred on Thursday.

Critics often observe that viewers of football and basketball telecasts can’t phone in to report rules violations.  However, golf is unique in its reliance on players, caddies, and spectators to maintain the integrity of the competition, since most play is not supervised by rules officials.  In fact, the reliance on input from spectators is well embedded in the Rules of Golf.  Rules decisions provide that testimony of spectators and television footage must be evaluated in resolving rules issues.  

The issue has become more complicated with the introduction of new technologies like high-definition television, which sometimes permits viewers to detect things (such as the slight movement of a ball) that the player could not reasonably detect.   Two years ago, the USGA and R&A issued Decision 33-7/4.5, which permits a waiver of the disqualification penalty in such situations.    

The impact of “armchair rules officials” has long been a sore subject among PGA Tour players.   Brandt Snedeker recently commented that “at some point you have to draw a line and stop it.  I don’t think fans should be able to call in and dictate the outcome of a tournament.”  After being subjected to several penalties this year for infractions spotted by spectators, television viewers, and roving film crews, Tiger Woods has also advocated that a time limit be placed on the consideration of information from such sources.  

Critics also contend that allowing television viewer input unfairly subjects players who receive more television exposure to greater scrutiny.  Peter Jacobsen, a former Tour player and current broadcaster, believes that input from television viewers strengthens the rules but concedes that “it’s unfair for Tiger because Tiger’s got a camera on him everywhere he goes.”

The PGA Tour is currently assessing whether limitations should be placed on the consideration of input from television viewers.   Last month, Commissioner Tim Finchem stated that such situations are “difficult and awkward,” and have become more problematic given the increasing amount of television coverage of events.   “I think we need to do some more thinking about it.  I think people in the game need to think about it,” said Finchem.  

The USGA and R&A have not weighed in on the issue.  If the Tour decides to adopt its own policy without coordination with the USGA and the R&A, a “rules bifurcation” issue similar to that presented by the anchoring rule debate could arise.  Finchem remarked that “our batting average[with the USGA & R&A] hasn’t been real good the last year, but we’d have a nice conversation with them, and then it would be we’d have to decide what we want to do.”

Jack Ross completed an intensive USGA/PGA rules workshop and has officiated at state amateur competitions.  Rules inquiries may be directed to rossgolf@charter.net.