It was simply a matter of time.
For those of you scoring at home, you’ll remember that my April “Starters Box” column (written in mid-March) focussed on the Rules of Golf. In the column, I said “…It seems that every year there’s some ridiculous situation where a player on Tour gets penalised (or even disqualified) for some arcane ruling that, to the casual observer, seems ludicrous…”
Well, no sooner had the magazine hit the racks before a major controversy made my prediction a reality. On April 3, during the ANA Inspiration event, American golfer Lexi Thompson was given a ridiculous penalty, for a rules violation from the PREVIOUS DAY, which was reported by A TELEVISION VIEWER.
As a game/industry, it was the moment that we hit rock bottom. We became the laughingstock of sport, with television newscasters on the evening news shaking their heads at the ridiculous situation.
As a golfer, I felt ashamed.
The tours and R&A/USGA have (rightly) copped a bashing over the incident, which adds more fuel to the fire of bad publicity surrounding the rules of golf. Golf fans (and their non-golfing mates) across the globe have lashed out at the Governing Bodies (and the game itself) stating that the Royal & Ancient rules are too long, complicated, and, frankly, ancient.
Without delving into the details (see page 26 for the full story), there are a few major talking points that have been making the rounds both online, and in clubhouses across the world:
- Lexi was not purposely cheating. The angle of her stance (while trying to avoid stepping on another player’s line, and potentially cause spikemarks) caused her to involuntary replace the ball in a slightly different position (in which she got no real improvement/benefit anyway).
- A two-stroke penalty is fine for a breach of the rules (perhaps a bit harsh in this instance), but it should have been applied immediately. At the very least, before she signed her card or prior to the end of the day’s play (and thus avoiding the additional (ridiculous) two strokes for signing an incorrect card.)
- TV viewers should have no authority whatsoever to report rules infractions. Golf is the only sport where this sort of thing happens (I have mentioned this MANY times in previous columns).
- The big-name players/stars garner increased scrutiny, and have far more video footage of their rounds. This puts them at a distinct disadvantage, as the rest of the field have little or no cameras on them. (You can surely bet that at least one or more players in the ANA field, over the four days, committed similar rules breaches (or worse) without any consequence, whether voluntary or not).
- Above all else, golf is a game of integrity and honour, and golfers are responsible for self-policing their own game.
So what can be done?
One possible solution—to level the playing field for all players—is to ensure that EVERY group has a full camera crew, capturing every move and every swing. Plus, if you’re going to make “Video Replay” an integral part of televised golf, then you meed MULTIPLE angles and cameras to ensure accuracy/fairness (like in other sports). And while we’re at it, why not attach GoPro cameras to the players, caddies, bags, flagsticks, etc. (Ok, so that’s not entirely feasible, but we have predicted that this sort of coverage may come to fruition one day in the not-too-distant future.)
Another option is that the various tours could impose a ban on ‘zooming in’ or showing extreme close-ups of a player’s ball. Again, this is not entirely feasible, as this sort of coverage is enticing to many TV viewers. But I wouldn’t be surprised if this has already been discussed at the higher levels.
The only real solution, in my opinion, is to simply deny any ‘Armchair Officials’ the right to call/email/post a ruling. The player, their partner, the caddies and the rules official in each group (or a match committee in the case of amateur golf) must be trusted (in a game of integrity and honour) to make the right call. Though this won’t stop people on Twitter/Facebook from commenting on violations (like they do with AFL, etc), it will certainly reduce the prevalence of this sort of atrocity. In any case, if an infraction is missed during the course of play, then it is missed. Move on.
Once a card is signed and accepted by tournament officials, it should be final. No retroactive penalties should be applied. (Unless, of course, a player willingly comes forward to admit that, “upon reflection”, they may have breached a rule. This has been the case on a few occasions.)
So where do we go from here?
The Governing Bodies have, to their credit, taken some small steps in recent months to simplify the rules (starting in 2019), but for many golfers (including yours truly) it’s too little, too late. And the rules, as such, are almost begging for another controversy to rear its ugly head. In my opinion, the Governing Bodies need to throw their ego/politics aside, and take a hard, serious look at ALL the rules. Not just the ones they are comfortable changing, but also the tough ones like OOB, hazards, and—the elephant in the room—driving distance, technology and the ball itself.
They simply must do what is best for the game. Before we run out of time.
See you on the fairways,