Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 26, 2010

The Rules Are The Rules, And The Rules Rule

On Wednesday Jim Furyk, ranked third in points going into the first of the PGA Tour’s four FedEx Cup playoff events was disqualified from that tournament, The Barclay’s. The DQ came when Furyk overslept and missed his tee time for the pre-tournament pro-am event. The pro-am began with a shotgun start at 7:30 a.m. Furyk, who said he uses his cell phone as an alarm clock, woke up at 7:23 after his phone lost power overnight and the alarm failed to go off. Although he somehow made it to the clubhouse at Ridgewood Country Club in Paramus, New Jersey by 7:35, he needed to be with his group on the 11th tee at that time.

Since 2004, PGA Tour policy has stated that failure to make a pro-am starting time for any reason other than a medical or family emergency disqualifies a player from that weekend’s tournament. The policy was instituted as a way of curbing a tendency for some pros to skip out on every week’s Wednesday bit of corporate schmoozing. More than a few golfers view the five or six hour round with a foursome of amateurs who they don’t know and will likely never see again as the least favorite aspect of their profession. However, the Tour rightly took the view that those amateur foursomes all cough up some serious cash for the privilege of playing 18 holes with a touring pro; and that without the steadfast support of such diehard fans the pros wouldn’t be competing every week for a share of a multi-million dollar purse.

Of course Jim Furyk wasn’t trying to skip out on his foursome; he just had some awful luck. Still, both the disqualification and his immediate acceptance of it demonstrate once again that in golf the rules (or Tour policies) leave little room for debate. Furyk’s plight marked the third time in ten days that a prominent professional golfer has felt the sharp sting of a rules violation.

Just last Saturday LPGA Hall of Famer Juli Inkster came to the turn during the second round of the Safeway Classic at Pumpkin Ridge in Oregon, only to find a serious backup on the 10th tee. While waiting out a 30 minute delay, the 50-year old Inkster put a donut-shaped weight down the shaft of her 9-iron and took some practice swings to stay loose. By sheer chance a television camera caught her making some of those swings, and a viewer emailed tournament officials citing a violation of Rule 14-3, which prohibits the use of artificial devices during a round. The penalty for breach of the rule is disqualification.

After finishing her round at 8-under par and just three strokes back of leader and eventual winner Ai Miyazato, Inkster was met by LPGA Director of Tournament Competitions Sue Witters and informed that she was out of the tournament.

Six days earlier, in front of tens of thousands of fans on the Whistling Straits course and millions more watching on television, Dustin Johnson sent his tee shot on the final hole of the PGA Championship way right and deep into the gallery. Clinging to a one-shot lead and with his first major victory a par four away, Johnson made his way through the throng to find his ball sitting on a patch of sand. Unfortunately, it never occurred to the South Carolina native that it might actually be one of the nearly 1,000 sand traps that architect Pete Dye spread out over the entire Wisconsin acreage.

On both a notice posted in the locker room and as the first item on the local rules list distributed to players, the PGA had clearly stated that all bunkers would be played as such, even those well outside the ropes that might have been trod upon or sat in by spectators. When Johnson grounded his club on the sand before taking his swing, he became subject to a two-stroke penalty. That penalty, which Johnson learned of as he was walking off the 18th green, dropped him out of a playoff with long-hitting Bubba Watson and eventual winner Martin Kaymer of Germany.

To a lot of folks, all three of these situations seem to border on the absurd. Furyk was five minutes late. Five minutes! And it was only the pro-am! Inkster wasn’t trying to gain a competitive advantage over the field; she was just trying to keep her 50-year old muscles loose during a long delay. And yes, maybe Johnson should have paid more heed to the notice in the locker room, but after a week of serving as a walkway and sitting area for tens of thousands of fans, the patch of sand his ball landed in was scarcely recognizable as a bunker.

But the public reactions from all three players were remarkably sanguine. “I’m kicking myself,” Furyk said. “I have a way of climbing into situations that are all my fault.” Inkster’s statement was “It had no effect on my game whatsoever, but it is what it is.” As for Johnson, he said “I just thought I was on a piece of dirt that the crowd had trampled down. Obviously I know the rules of golf and I can’t ground my club in a bunker, but that was just one situation I guess. Maybe I should have looked at the rule sheet a little harder.”

While I have no doubt that all three golfers were boiling inside, their public comments reflect their understanding of just how important golf’s rules are. It is a game often played, even at the professional level, in relative solitude. Every player has a responsibility to the rest of the field to maintain the integrity of the game. That means strict adherence to the rules, even the ones, perhaps especially the ones, that seem to border on the absurd.

On the other hand, one thing that does bother me is that in both Johnson’s and Inkster’s situations, the infraction was brought to light by someone watching television. At the PGA Championship, it was at least another rules official who was watching TV at Whistling Straits. At the Safeway Classic it was an unidentified viewer sitting at home. That was by no means the first time that’s happened, and I am certain it won’t be the last.

But I’m no fan of these self-appointed referees. Since they take the time to watch golf on television, odds are pretty good that they also play the game. The next time a tournament office or a television network gets an email or phone call from someone breathlessly reporting that they’ve just witnessed a rules violation, the writer or caller should be asked if by chance he or she rolled over their ball to improve a lie in the fairway, or took a mulligan or two during their last weekend round. Unless the honest answer is no, delete the message. Hang up the phone. And let the men and women who play golf for a living, and do so with remarkable integrity, play on.

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