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After years of inaction on the vexing problem of “armchair rules officials” (television viewers calling in rules violations), Lexi Thompson’s debacle at the ANA Inspiration last April proved to be the last straw for golf’s governing bodies. When an inconsequential violation while replacing her ball on a green was reported a day later by a viewer during the final round, Thompson was assessed a four-stroke penalty: two for the violation and two for signing an incorrect scorecard.

 

The incident cost Thompson the tournament and the USGA and the professional tours what little credibility they retained in administering the rules during tournaments. The incredulous result and the outrage it sparked prompted the formation of a working group (led by the USGA and the R&A with participation of the major professional tours and the PGA of America) to address a surreal dimension of the rules of golf that nearly caused Tiger Woods’ disqualification at the 2013 Masters.

Players and fans might have wondered over the years whether the rule permitting viewer call-ins originated in the Land of Oz. At long last, the wicked witch is dead. Yesterday, the USGA announced the adoption of new set of protocols for video review of televised golf events that will strip the cell phones from the hands of the armchair rules officials. As of January 1, 2018, the professional tours will no longer consider reports of rules violations by viewers.

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Tiger Woods comes to Lexi Thompson’s defense on Twitter

In addition, the rules will be modified to eliminate the two-stroke penalty for failing to include a penalty on a scorecard where the player is unaware of the penalty. This rule change alone would have saved Thompson last April. The rule, to be adopted by all men’s and women’s tours throughout the world, will initially take the form of a local rule until it is incorporated as part of the rules modernization initiative that becomes effective in January 2019.

Under the new video review protocol, officials will monitor the video broadcast of a tournament to help identify and resolve rules issues that arise. Viewer call-ins will not be a part of the process. (An intriguing loophole: player and media reports based on broadcast video apparently may be considered.) In addition, non-broadcast videos taken by cell phones or cameras will not be used to review potential rules violations.

The video protocol does not alter the general principle under the rules that officials will consider information from any credible source, such as witnesses on the course, players, caddies, marshals, and spectators. However, only video produced by the broadcaster of the event will be reviewed. So, a fan may tell an official “I saw Tiger move his ball,” but may not show the official his cell phone video. The official would have to make a decision after consulting with the player, any other observers, and any available broadcast video.

The USGA explained that viewer call-ins are not desirable because (1) the monitoring of video by officials renders them unnecessary, (2) they can be distracting to officials (most involve misunderstanding of rules or facts), and (3) they create an unhealthy perception of random, inconsistent, and/or improperly motivated outside intervention in applying the rules. Kudos to the USGA and R&A for finally grasping what players and fans have known for years.

Under Decision 34-3/10, issued last April, limitations apply to the use of video evidence. A player’s reasonable judgment in certain situations will be accepted even if review of video indicates the judgment was incorrect. In addition, video evidence that reveals facts that could not have been detected by the naked eye (such as the nearly imperceptible movement of a ball on a green) will be disregarded. Some players have questioned the ruling’s scope and wonder whether it will preclude penalties such as that imposed on Thompson at the ANA Inspiration.

So, while video review may continue to generate rules questions during tournaments, one thing is certain: the armchair rules official has been relegated to the dustbin of history. It’s about time.

 

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