Commentary: Rules call-ins unlikely to go away

Lexi Thompson LPGA Ana Ispiration Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Commentary: Rules call-ins unlikely to go away

LPGA Tour

Commentary: Rules call-ins unlikely to go away

In the aftermath of the four-stroke penalty levied against Lexi Thompson at the ANA Inspiration on April 2, there was an outcry across social and mainstream media over the belated ruling. There was frustration throughout the golf world that yet another major-championship Sunday was marred by yet another rules kerfuffle. There was even a quickly assembled decision April 25 by the USGA and R&A – two governing bodies not known for acting quickly – to instantly lessen the use of high-speed video in reviewing and administering the rules.

Rules officials and tour executives say the majority of call-ins from armchair referees are meritless, but none are automatically dismissed.

“We review everything,” said Thomas Pagel, the USGA’s senior director of rules and amateur status.

“Our philosophy right now is that we will take information brought to us from any source,” said Andy Pazder, the PGA Tour’s chief operating officer, but he added, “nearly every one of them amounts to nothing. Occasionally, there are circumstances, if it’s on video, we’ll say, ‘Let’s have a look.’ And almost all of those turn out to be nothing.”

Officials from the R&A, LPGA and European Tour also said they investigate all call-ins to see if they have any merit.

“It’s usually rubbish, and we can dismiss the claim pretty quickly,” said Andy McFee, the European Tour’s chief referee.

But sometimes, as was the case with Thompson’s mismarking of her ball on the 17th green during the third round of the ANA Inspiration, the caller has a valid point. Even if the call is a day late.

One of the great mysteries is how these television viewers even know how to contact tournament officials about a rules violation.

“We’ve never had a mechanism for the public to call in, but people just seem to find us,” McFee said.

In 2013, David Eger, a former USGA and PGA Tour rules official, called in to alert officials that Tiger Woods had taken an illegal drop on the 15th hole during the second round of the Masters. But that’s rare.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been contacted by someone I know (for example, a fellow rules official not working the tournament),” said David Rickman, the R&A’s executive director of rules and equipment standards. “I have no recollection of an inquiry of that nature. They tend to come in from general fans.”

Sue Witters, the LPGA’s vice president of tour rules and competition, said most viewers with rules inquiries reach out via email. “I can’t remember the last time we had a call,” she said. Pagel noted that the USGA website provides contact information, both email and phone, for anyone who has a rules inquiry throughout the year. Those contact forms sometimes are used by television viewers who think they’ve witnessed an infraction.

“During our championships, our staff is monitoring all voicemails on that line,” Pagel said. “We also monitor social media for questions and answer most via private message.”

As one might expect, the bigger events – with larger TV audiences and more cameras – tend to generate more call-ins.

Pagel said that during a U.S. Open, he might get more than 10 call-ins a day; other days he might not get any. Rickman estimated his staff would receive 20-25 calls during an Open Championship.

The USGA takes the unusual step of monitoring broadcast and digital feeds, and will review any questionable incidents.

“About 95 percent of what we receive (from call-ins) during USGA championships has already been seen by the team prior to the first call received,” Pagel said.

Following the Thompson incident, there was a renewed outcry, particularly among players, to stop taking rules inquiries from TV viewers. That’s not likely to happen. Golf is unlike other sports that are played on confined fields with officiating crews, dozens of TV cameras and instant replay.

“We’ve got a competition that’s played over 100-plus acres, with 70-plus balls in play at one time,” Pazder said. “We can’t see every stroke and monitor every stroke. That’s the reason (to accept call-ins). It’s different than having a 100-yard-long football field with I don’t even know how many officials they have. A lot, watching one football, one baseball, one soccer ball. We have 70-plus (balls) in play. It’s a different playing field.”

That won’t provide much solace for players who feel victimized by nameless, faceless, armchair rules officials.

Six years ago Camilo Villegas was disqualified at Kapalua after a call-in. Villegas’ crime? He chunked a chip shot on 15, and as the ball rolled back down the hill toward him, he flipped a divot out of its path – a rules violation. He was made aware of the violation after signing his scorecard  and was disqualified; since then, the rules have been modified so that a player (such as in Thompson’s case) is docked two shots for unknowingly signing for an incorrect score.

Villegas draws a parallel between anonymous critics on social media and those who call in rules infractions but are not identified.

“The people are behind closed doors,” he said. “Nobody knows who they are. They’re just there … trust me, we have plenty of people policing the rules out here. We don’t need more people out there.”

There is, however, a lot of gray area.

PGA Tour veteran Geoff Ogilvy flatly says, “I don’t like people being able to call in.” But if evidence of a violation is being played on television or spread on social media, it can’t be ignored.

“They have to look at it, they have to,” Ogilvy said. “That’s effectively a call-in. Are they going to say, ‘We’re not going to pay attention to these 150,000 people who say they just saw this infraction?’ ”

That’s why Paul Azinger continues to support the right of fans to call in rules inquiries despite having been famously disqualified after signing for an opening-round 65 during the 1991 Doral-Ryder Open. A viewer in Colorado noticed that Azinger moved a rock while playing from the water hazard on the closing hole. Azinger was penalized two shots and disqualified for signing an incorrect scorecard.

Now Fox’s lead television analyst, Azinger witnessed first-hand the rules imbroglios involving Dustin Johnson at the 2016 U.S. Open and Anna Nordqvist a month later at the U.S. Women’s Open.

None of that has altered his core belief: Tournament officials must investigate call-ins that have merit.

“I don’t see how you cannot take call-ins as long as long as the tournament is underway,” Azinger said. “Nobody wants to make the mistake, have it spotted, especially in a Twitter or social-media generation, and then have to deal with the brunt of that if they were to go on to win. So I think they’ll decide to keep the call-ins in place.”

– Golfweek staff writers Jeff Babineau, Beth Ann Nichols and Alistair Tait contributed to this report.

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