Shackelford: USGA fails to fully clarify issue of high-def rules incidents

USGA/Matt Sullivan

Shackelford: USGA fails to fully clarify issue of high-def rules incidents

PGA Tour

Shackelford: USGA fails to fully clarify issue of high-def rules incidents

ERIN, Wis. – The U.S. Golf Association announced a comprehensive effort to address high-definition U.S. Open rules incidents as part of a concerted effort to prevent future controversies. While most situations involving player intent to move a ball were already answered by a new local rule giving the player more discretion, the unveiling did not entirely settle questions about how future situations will play out.

Even more surprising was the organization’s inability to answer the question on most minds in the wake of 2016 U.S. Open: would the new “protocols” allow the USGA to more expediently review and notify a player, such as Dustin Johnson, of a possible rules violation? On the fifth hole of the final round last year, Johnson’s ball moved as his putter approached it. He quickly raised. The referee told Johnson to continue. Six holes later, Johnson was assessed a one-stroke penalty.

Here’s what was introduced Wednesday at Erin Hills:

  • A chief referee. Thomas Pagel, the USGA’s senior director of rules, becomes the USGA’s Chief Referee, empowered to make final decisions on rules questions. “We think of using another analogy from other sports, Thomas is our white hat referee,” John Bodenhamer, the USGA’s senior managing director of championships and governance, said. “Among all the black hats, he’s the white hat and empowered to make instantaneous decisions.”
  • A more mobile rules committee. “They’ll be in close communication with one another at all times,” Bodenhamer said. “And they’ll be able to make timely decisions, expedited decisions.”
  • On-course video review options. There will be four on-course video review locations for the committee, augmented by tablets, for reviewing video. However, the USGA did not commit to whether the tablets would be used for on-course reviews with players.
  • The end of walking referees. A “stationary referee model” ends the practice in place since 1991 where a rules official accompanied each group. Instead, there will be monitors assigned to each hole. The concepts seem like a logical reaction to the often-confusing situations related to golf video replay situations. But in practice, the USGA has no way of knowing if they’ve created a remedy or merely new headaches. Nor did the USGA present comforting visuals or reassuring evidence showing how Johnson’s situation would have been impacted.

“It’s a different situation because there’s no longer a penalty involved,” Bodenhamer said. “The determination needs to be whether it was accidental or something else other than the player caused that ball to move. If it’s accidental, no penalty, just put it back.”

While that may be enough to address the issue, the USGA could not rule out possibly looking at video reviews on tablets in the bright sunshine. Bodenhamer said every situation is different.

“I think our intention is for our committee to have the ability to review on course,” he said. “Not necessarily the player. I wouldn’t rule that out, but not necessarily. That’s not our intention. But our committee will have eyeballs on it.”

Not necessarily is not necessarily comforting.

As for notifying players?

“Every situation is different,” Bodenhamer said. “There are protocols that we follow and things that we think about. But really our thought, our plan, our intention is to act as quickly as possible while being thorough in the consideration of all the facts.”

So while the tablets will show the committee video, it’s the chief referee who doesn’t really need their input according to Wednesday’s rollout.

“His decision would be final,’ Bodenhamer said. “And that is something we’ve empowered him with when the situation requires it. But we think in most instances there will be a consultation with the committee, as we always usually do.”

It was Pagel who last year determined Johnson was deserving of a penalty, though under the new USGA Local Rule, the accidental nature of last year’s incident would be left to the player to say whether he caused the ball to move intentionally.

Maybe all of this is moot and we won’t ever have to see officials trying to shade a tablet and showing a player a possible violation.

Maybe hole monitors will anticipate situations better than walking officials ever could, and just maybe the players will be believed going forward.

Still so many maybes.

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