Commentary: Stopping TV snitches won't end need for in-game fixes

US golfer Jordan Spieth discusses his options with a rules official after taking a penalty drop for having an unplayable lie on the 13th hole during his final round on day four of the 2017 Open Golf Championship at Royal Birkdale golf course near Southport in north west England on July 23, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / ANDY BUCHANAN / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE (Photo credit should read ANDY BUCHANAN/AFP/Getty Images) Andy Buchanan/Getty Images

Commentary: Stopping TV snitches won't end need for in-game fixes

Professional

Commentary: Stopping TV snitches won't end need for in-game fixes

Stopping armchair rules officials from calling in violations will not stop rules imbroglios any more than slimming down the rule book will lead to fewer players committing transgressions.

There was much rejoicing when the R&A and USGA announced that as of Jan. 1 they and the professional tours will “discontinue any steps to facilitate or consider viewer call-ins as part of the rules decision process.”

The governing bodies also decided to abolish double jeopardy so that no one suffers Lexi Thompson’s fate in this year’s ANA Inspiration. Thompson was found to have marked her ball incorrectly in the third round after an unidentified TV viewer emailed LPGA officials a day later. She was assessed a two-shot penalty for incorrectly marking her ball and another two-shot penalty for an incorrect scorecard. Going forward, only the two-shot penalty for the initial misdemeanor will count if a player was unaware of the violation when he or she signed the scorecard.

The governing bodies say viewers won’t need to call in because rules officials will monitor broadcasts to identify and resolve issues as they arise. That doesn’t guarantee issues won’t arise anyway.

Augusta officials watched Tiger Woods take a drop on the 15th hole during the second round of the 2013 Masters. Despite being alerted of the violation while Woods was still on the course, officials, for reasons which still seem unfathomable, chose not to question the four-time winner about the matter. Woods was later assessed a two-shot penalty and allowed to continue in the tournament, for reasons that also remain questionable.

The above situation points to a future scenario in which a player commits an infraction, an official deems no violation and it emerges that the player broke the rules. What then? Imagine if a player wins a major by a shot only to find out later he or she should have been assessed a two-shot penalty because of a violation that should have been detected. The player in second place might just be a wee bit unhappy, while the winner might feel the win is tainted.

I agree with the removal of double jeopardy. Slamming a four-shot penalty on Thompson was extremely unfair. However, she wouldn’t have been docked four shots if she’d marked her ball correctly in the first place. She only has herself to blame.

The same can be said for many others who run afoul of the rules, which brings us to the proposed, so-called simplified and shorter version of rules that will go into effect in 2019. It’s fanciful to think the majority of golfers will take the time to read the new rules any more than they read the old ones.

The level of ignorance of the rules among tour pros has amazed me over 25 years of covering this great game. It’s absolutely staggering. Tour pros will spend eight hours a day working on all aspects of their game yet can’t find 10 minutes to read the rules. It’s not as if they don’t have enough down time on flights, in courtesy cars and in hotel rooms. As European Tour chief referee John Paramor once said, even 10 minutes a day learning the Definitions would go a long way toward increasing their knowledge and stopping violations.

Imagine a banker who didn’t know the banking code? A lawyer who didn’t know the law? Yet most tour pros seem quite happy to live in ignorance even though their livelihoods depend on the 34 rules that govern the game.

The European Tour once set up regular rules seminars to teach players. The tour had to cancel them because players weren’t turning up. That’s not to paint all players with the same brush. For example, Jack Nicklaus, the late Seve Ballesteros and others had good understandings of the rules. Annika Sorenstam even attended rules courses. These players had the knowledge to use the rules to their advantage.

Will a slimmed-down version of the rule book create more experts so we can do away with officials? Don’t bet on it.

“Golf is played on a big area – lots of people, lots of animals, lots of birds, lots of unusual things can happen,” said David Rickman, executive director of governance at the R&A. “None of that is going to change just because we want to make the rules briefer.”

And rules controversies won’t disappear because TV viewers have been demoted to the sidelines. 

(Note: This story appears in the Dec. 18, 2017 issue of Golfweek.)

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