The hot rules controversy of 2011 involves disqualifications attributable to “armchair rules officials” who phone in reports of rules violations after the players have signed their scorecards.

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.”

Padraih HarrintonPadraig 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.  

Although such retroactive disqualifications do not sit well with many fans, commentators, and players, Rule 6-6d mandates disqualification in such circumstances.  

The controversy was fueled by PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem’s comments 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.

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 isTim Finchem“proportionate or equitable” in certain situations, and identified an alternative approach: adding penalty strokes to the player’s score.  Votaw confirmed that the Tour has the ability to adopt policies independently, but generally prefers to work with the USGA.  

Thomas Pagel, Director of Rules of Golf for the USGA, agreed that the Villegas and Harrington incidents represent different situations; Villegas was ignorant of the rule, while Harrington simply didn’t think his ball moved.  Pagel also observed that the landscape has changed radically with 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.  

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. 


Jack Ross is the golf editor of ValleySportsNow.com and a rules official with the Massachusetts Golf Association.