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Called in violations still irks many

12/22/2013 - Golf

Picture Jason Dufner in his den watching his beloved Auburn Tigers on television when they meet Florida State in the BCS Championship Game on Jan. 6. He spots a Seminole player step out of bounds on a crucial touchdown run. Dufner might rant and rave about the missed call, but he can't phone into the replay booth to have the play reviewed.

Yet, if Dufner commits an infraction the following weekend at the Sony Open in Hawaii, he becomes fair game for the infamous "armchair rules officials" -- those fans glued to their screens with rule book and cell phone in hand who frequently alert tournament committee officials to potential violations.

Many players and fans question why spectators in golf, unlike any other sport, can directly impact the competition. In 2013, there were numerous rules controversies -- including a series of infractions (or alleged infractions) committed by Tiger Woods, an erroneous lateral hazard ruling at the Solheim Cup and the disqualification and later sanctioning of Simon Dyson on the European Tour.

A theme running through a number of such incidents was the role of television viewers in rules enforcement.

The impact of armchair rules officials can be devastating if a report is received after the player has signed his scorecard. At the BMW Masters, Dyson was disqualified when a television viewer reported he had tamped down a spike mark on the line of his putt because tournament officials did not review the incident until after he had signed his card.

Woods was spared disqualification at the Masters only because tournament officials concluded they were remiss in not informing him that his drop in the second round on the 15th hole had been questioned before he signed his card. Since there is no time limit for tournament officials to investigate a rules violation prior to the end of an event, conceivably a player could be disqualified on Sunday for an incident that occurred on Thursday.

Critics of armchair rules officials also point out that players who receive more television exposure are unfairly subjected to greater scrutiny. After his issues with the rule book in 2013, Woods would surely agree. At the Masters, a television viewer questioned his drop after his ball careened off the flagstick into a water hazard, setting in motion a bizarre series of events that nearly resulted in Woods' disqualification.

Later in the year at the BMW Championship, a camera crew reported to officials that Woods' ball moved slightly when he removed a loose impediment, resulting in a penalty. Woods has advocated that a time limit be placed on the ability of viewers to report infractions.

The issue has become thornier with the introduction of new technologies like high-definition television, which sometimes permits viewers to detect things (such as the slight movement of a ball) that the player cannot reasonably see. At the BMW Championship, Woods was convinced that his ball merely oscillated, but HDTV footage revealed the ball moved slightly.

The USGA and the R&A addressed the technology issue in a new rules decision effective Jan. 1, 2014, which provides that a player will not be penalized if the movement of a ball was not reasonably discernible by the naked eye, but only by enhanced video technology.

Had Decision 18/4 been in effect last season, Woods might have escaped a penalty at the BMW Championship. However, while the new rules decision might alleviate some of the concerns surrounding armchair rules officials, it is limited in scope. Two years ago, the USGA and R&A issued Decision 33-7/4.5, which permits a waiver of the disqualification penalty in similar situations.

The PGA Tour is currently assessing whether limitations should be placed on the consideration of input from television viewers. In September, PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem stated that such situations are "difficult and awkward" and have become more problematic given the increasing amount of television coverage of events.

"I think we need to do some more thinking about it," Finchem said. "I think people in the game need to think about it."

So far, the USGA and R&A do not seem inclined to place restrictions on input from television viewers. The ruling bodies of golf have long maintained that, since most golf competition is not supervised by rules officials, the vigilance of players, caddies and spectators is necessary to maintain the integrity of the competition and protect the field. In fact, the reliance on input from spectators is well embedded in the Rules of Golf. Rules decisions say that testimony of spectators and television footage must be evaluated in resolving rules issues.

In a joint statement accompanying the new decisions last month, the USGA and R&A reaffirmed their longstanding position that all evidence, including information from spectators and television viewers, should be considered in determining whether a rules infraction has occurred. They also stated that the tournament committee may impose penalties at any time before the competition has closed.

The statement explained that disregarding relevant evidence "could lead to uncertainty and to unhealthy debate and disagreement about the fairness of a result," and that "regardless of the timing or type of evidence used, the integrity of the game is best served by getting the ruling right."

Most players probably would not take issue with the objective of "getting the ruling right," but would like to see any reviews conducted in a timely manner so as to avoid the Draconian disqualification penalty when an infraction comes to light after the player has signed his card.

There are signs that the USGA and R&A might reassess the disqualification penalty in connection with the next rules revisions in 2016. The joint statement indicated the ruling bodies will continue to study "the overall question of the appropriate penalty for returning an incorrect score where the player was unaware that a penalty had been incurred."

If the PGA Tour were to unilaterally adopt restrictions on television viewer input, it might create a knotty "rules bifurcation" issue similar to that presented by the anchoring rule, when the tour and the PGA of America initially balked at implementing the restrictions on the use of long putters.

The adherence by the USGA and R&A to the position that television viewers should be free to report rules infractions at any time before the competition has closed might create pressure to reevaluate the disqualification rule for incorrect scorecards.

It's one thing to protect the field by assessing penalties after the fact; it is another to disqualify players who could not reasonably have known that they committed a rules infraction.

Jack Ross also writes a golf rules column as well as news and features for New England Golf Monthly. He has completed intensive PGA/USGA rules workshop.