Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 23, 2011

Time To Tell Golf’s TV Snitches To Get A Life

Well that didn’t take long. This year’s professional golf season is barely underway, and already two players have been disqualified from tournaments due to rules violations reported to tour officials by someone watching the event on television. It’s long past time for the professional tours to stop allowing TV snitches to intervene in their events.

In the very first round of the PGA Tour’s very first tournament, the Hyundai Tournament of Champions in Hawaii, Camilo Villegas came up short and below the 15th green with his approach shot. Twice he attempted to chip up the hill onto the putting surface, only to have the ball roll back down to him. As his Titleist was tumbling back to him the second time, an understandably frustrated Villegas swatted aside a loose tuft of grass in front of his divot with his club. Unfortunately the grass was exactly on the line down which the ball was rolling. Rule 23-1 states in part, “When a ball is in motion, a loose impediment that might influence the movement of the ball must not be removed.” By violating the rule, Villegas should have taken a two-stroke penalty.

While the Colombian star and three-time PGA Tour winner didn’t recognize the violation, a fan in Florida did. One Dave Andrews, watching the television broadcast with friends, contacted the Tour to report the breach. Unfortunately, by the time he did so, Villegas had completed his round and signed his scorecard for a 71, which did not include the two-stroke penalty. Those two strokes certainly would have been bad enough; but the penalty for signing an incorrect scorecard is far more severe, namely disqualification.

This week the European PGA Tour was in Abu Dhabi for the HSBC Championship. Three-time major winner Padraig Harrington opened with a fine 65, good enough for second place heading into Friday’s second round. Only before he could tee off on Friday, the Irishman learned that the 65 should have been a 67. Playing the 7th hole in round one, Harrington had marked his ball on the green and lined up his putt. As he replaced the ball and removed his marker, his finger brushed his golf ball, causing it to move. Rule 20-3a stipulates that while there is no penalty for the ball accidentally being moved, it must be returned to its original spot. Because Paddy failed to do so, he should have incurred a two-stroke penalty.

Once again, it was a television viewer who emailed European Tour officials after seeing the incident while sitting at home; and then, with the aid of a digital video recorder and an HD television, replaying it in super slow motion. And once again, by the time those officials became aware of the issue, reviewed their own video tape in slow motion and determined that Harrington’s ball had in fact moved forward by a couple of dimples, the golfer had long since completed his round and signed a card with what turned out to be an incorrect score. That having been done, the only allowable outcome was disqualification.

Who knows what motivates someone to get up from their recliner and reach for a cell phone or laptop. The allure of notoriety? A desire to show up the best golfers on the planet? A simmering subconscious resentment that the pros get to make a ridiculously good living by playing a game? No doubt most armchair officials would claim a simple desire to protect the integrity of what is probably the most rules-conscious of all professional sports. Bollocks.

Touring pros are all aware of the absolute importance of the game’s extensive and often complicated rules. Players regularly call penalties on themselves. In addition, there are multiple rules officials on the course at every tournament; and every player knows that they have a responsibility to “protect the field” by being aware of and monitoring not only their own actions but those of the other players in their grouping. The game’s integrity is not in danger, nor was the outcome of either the Tournament of Champions or the HSBC Championship affected by the presence or absence of Camilo’s tuft of grass or the eighth of an inch change in the location of Paddy’s ball.

That’s not to say that both players should not have had the penalty strokes added to their scores, since even when they are arcane the rules are the rules. But that’s not what happens when the TV snitches intervene. The result instead is almost always a DQ because of the time it takes for their breathless report of an infraction to reach tournament officials. Certainly the armchair officials know this full well when they pick up the phone or start to compose their email message.

Villegas, Harrington, and everyone else on tour are indeed lucky to be making a living playing a game. But they are still trying to make a living. At the limited field Tournament of Champions last place was worth $55,000 but Villegas didn’t earn a dime. This weekend in Abu Dhabi, Martin Kaymer won $455,000 as he romped to victory, but Harrington never got the chance to overtake him.

Meanwhile, do we know that the two incidents that led to the disqualifications were the only penalties that went uncalled in Hawaii and Abu Dhabi? Of course not. Golf is not a television-friendly sport. It’s played on courses that range over several hundred acres. Full-field events begin with more than 150 players teeing it up for the first two rounds. Television shows a fraction of the play, inevitably focusing on those golfers who are either household names or on the first page of the leaderboard. The only certainty is that the two incidents were the only ones that were a) caught on camera, b) noticed by someone watching at home who was, c) both motivated and able to contact tournament officials.

The only good news to come out of these two early season fiascoes is that the USGA and R&A have begun discussions about changing the rules around disqualification under such circumstances. Mike Davis, the senior director of rules and competitions for the USGA, told the Golf Digest website that the two governing bodies “will open it up again.”

Frank Hannigan, the former executive director of the USGA, has suggested that the PGA Tour reinstate a practice in place for a time in the 1990’s. After a TV snitch got Paul Azinger disqualified for shifting his feet and moving some pebbles while standing in a water hazard at the 1991 Doral Open (thus “improving” his stance), then-commissioner Deane Beman ordered a tour rules official into the television truck at each tournament. That official’s sole job was to watch the television feed with the idea of spotting any rules violations so that players could be informed in time to correct their score cards. Ironically, the practice was abandoned in the face of protests from the players.

Hannigan’s idea is worth considering, as is the simple one of just adding any belated penalty strokes onto the player’s already submitted score. But the best idea of all would be for everyone to acknowledge that as important as the rules are, golf, like life, is not a game of perfect. Tell the TV snitches to find some other way to amuse themselves.

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