WHAT'S YOUR REACTION?

I would guess that most touring pros crave television exposure. If you’re on TV on the weekend, it probably means you’re hovering near the top of the leaderboard, winning big bucks, and pleasing your sponsors since tens of millions of viewers are getting a good look at their logos. (Of course, Tiger Woods seemed to get plenty of airtime last year even while mired in the depths of the field most weekends, but that’s another story.)

This season, however, at least two touring pros are beginning to wonder whether TV exposure is such a good thing in the wake of controversial disqualifications attributable to “armchair rules officials” who phoned in reports of rules violations after the players had signed their scorecards. Perhaps TV exposure is starting to look like a double-edged sword.

Camilo Villegas was disqualified from the Hyundai Tournament of Champions in Hawaii after a television viewer noticed that he had flicked a divot out of the path of his rolling ball and violated Rule 23-1, which prohibits the removal of a loose impediment that might “influence the movement of the ball.” He learned this only the following morning, perhaps as he was preparing to hit the range to warm up for the third round. The misfortune put a damper on his 29th birthday.

Padraig Harrington subsequently suffered a similar fate at the Abu Dhabi Championship when a viewer watching a broadcast on HDTV perceived that he very slightly moved his ball forward when removing his mark on the green and failed to replace it as required by Rule 20-3a. Rules officials had to watch the tape numerous times before concluding that the ball had in fact moved “by a few dimples.”

Such retroactive disqualifications do not sit well with many fans, commentators, and players. Following the Villegas incident, Ernie Els suggested imposing a deadline of the conclusion of play for calls reporting possible infractions. However, Rule 6-6d mandates disqualification for signing an incorrect card, and the tournament committee is obligated to investigate any report of a rules violation at any time in order to protect the field.

The controversy was further fueled earlier this month when PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem commented that the disqualification rule should be applied “with fairness and common sense” and might be unwarranted where the player knows the rule but could not have reasonably known he committed a violation. Finchem’s remarks have led to high-level discussions between the PGA Tour, the USGA, and the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews.

In interviews with New England Golf Monthly, senior officials at the USGA and the PGA Tour have confirmed that discussions are ongoing, but would not speculate as to the likelihood or time frame of any modification of the rule.

Ty Votaw, Executive Vice President for Communications for the PGA Tour, said that the Tours questions whether disqualification is “proportional or equitable” in certain situations, and identified an alternative approach: adding penalty strokes to the player’s score. Votaw noted that, in evaluating any change to the rules, “a number of scenarios” would have to be considered.

Votaw confirmed that the Tour has the ability to adopt policies independently, but observed that “we don’t do that lightly.” The Tour generally prefers to work with the USGA on rules issues. He also said the Tour is not considering adding a rules official to the television booth, a practice it abandoned some years ago. He explained that such an approach “is not foolproof.”

Thomas Pagel, Director of Rules of Golf for the USGA, observed that the Villegas and Harrington incidents represent different situations — Villegas was ignorant of the rule, while Harrington simply didn’t think his ball moved. He implied that the ongoing discussions might consider that distinction.

Pagel noted that although viewers have called in violations for years, the advent of HDTV, which permits viewers to detect things (such as the movement of Harrington’s ball) that would not have been observable under analog television, has dramatically altered the landscape.

The tournament committee has discretionary authority to waive or modify a disqualification penalty under Rule 33-7, but ruled in a situation similar to Villegas’ that such action was not warranted on the theory that the player should know the rules. (Decision 33-7/4.5) When asked whether the USGA might address the problem under Rule 33-7 rather than modifying the rules, Pagel responded: “In the continuing discussions with our partners we are sure to look at all of the potential options, including the status quo.”

The next rules revision is scheduled for 2012. Pagel said there is some precedent for adopting rules changes outside of the regular cycle, but would not comment as to whether any change to the disqualification rule would warrant such treatment.

Unless or until any change is made to the rules, don’t be surprised to see more players disqualified based on the eagle eyes of armchair rules officials armed with HDTV. Still, if I were on the Tour, I think I’d soak up the TV limelight and take my chances. It beats missing the cut.

Jack Ross is the golf editor of ValleySportsNow.com and a rules official with the Massachusetts Golf Association. He also authors  Ross’s Rulings for NEGM.

 

WHAT'S YOUR REACTION?