Column: Letting armchair officials police the sport a disaster waiting to happen

  • Article by: JIM LITKE , AP Sports Columnist
  • Updated: June 14, 2013 - 7:55 PM

ARDMORE, Pa. — "Hello, Merion Golf Club. May I help you?"

"Yes. Can I speak to a rules official from the U.S. Golf Association, please. I saw a twig move."

"Sir, thousands of twigs get tossed around here every day. It's a golf course."

"Yeah, but this one was moved by Tiger Woods' backswing, in a fairway bunker on No. 16."

"Excuse me, but how would you know that? There's no place for fans to see anything on 16. There's barely places to stand on that hole."

"I'm not there. I'm in Phoenix, watching on an 80-inch high-def TV.

"I'm sure it's very nice, sir. But when did this allegedly happen?

"Thursday. And there's no 'allegedly' about it. I just got home from an out-of-town wedding and started watching the DVR. I rewound it eight times, twice in super slo-mo. And I'm on the rules committee at my club. He broke Rule 13-4c — moving a loose impediment lying in a hazard."

"But it's Sunday, sir. And this is the U.S. Open. Mr. Woods is on the verge of winning his first major in five years. He's on the last hole.

"I know, but he should have been penalized and he needs to be disqualified. He signed an incorrect scorecard Thursday. A rule is a rule is a rule."

___

Someday soon, golf is going to regret letting people watching from home phone in rules violations. Consider what happened at this year's Masters a dry run.

During the second round there, Woods hit a ball that ricocheted off the flagstick and into the pond at No. 15. Soon after, a viewer — later revealed to be David Eger, a Champions Tour golfer who once ran the USGA's rules committee — notified tournament officials that Woods had taken an improper drop before hitting his next shot. The next day, Masters officials reviewed the sequence a second time and penalized Woods two strokes, but quickly cited another rule to avoid disqualifying him for signing an incorrect scorecard.

At the U.S. Open on Thursday, the claim by at least one viewer that Steve Stricker took an illegal drop at No. 3 found its way to the USGA rules committee. Later the same day, as many as a half-dozen other viewers contended Adam Scott grounded his club in a hazard at No. 5. After reviewing both shots, the USGA decided no violation occurred.

So it may take a unique set of circumstances, but if they ever align, all this armchair officiating is going to test the notion that golfers are more honorable than their counterparts in the other pro sports, where the prevailing ethic could be summed up as "If you ain't cheatin' you ain't tryin.'"

Imagine if the caller in the conversation above also happened to be a pal of a golfer chasing Woods down the stretch of a tournament on Sunday; even worse, what if he called in at the direction of Woods' rival.

A handful of golfers asked that question Friday couldn't imagine.

"It's just a different type of sport," Jim Furyk said. "Every other sport I played, you were taught how to cheat, how to get away with things. In this sport, you cheat once in your life, you get labeled. It sticks forever and you're an outcast. You're taught a totally different set of rules here.

"No one," he added, "wants to win when they do something wrong."

The rules of golf were first codified in 1744, and because of the sprawling field of play, the burden of calling fouls was placed on the players themselves. Let's take the high road and assume they have ever since, and that the same ethic holds for another 250 years or so.

It seems as optimistic as the claim by most pro golfers that no competitor would dare use performance-enhancing drugs. It also contradicts everything we know about human nature, especially when huge sums of money are at stake, but it's possible.

Yet even that doesn't solve the problem.

In golf, it doesn't matter whether a rule was violated intentionally. And a golfer can be penalized up until the final ball of the last golfer in the field finds the bottom of the cup and all the scorecards have been signed. Silly as the conversation above sounds, there's absolutely nothing that would prevent it from happening.

The same golfers who fielded questions about potential cheating said they could live with that scenario.

"It's part of the game," Geoff Ogilvy said. "But I don't think anybody likes it."

"I don't think it's the best thing," said Scott, who proposed having rules officials watch the coverage the way replay officials in sports like football, and to a lesser extent, baseball and hockey do.

"It's always been like that," David Toms said. "If I break a rule, whether I meant to or not, I have no problem having it called."

Let's hope so, since the players don't have a choice at the moment.

Among all of the game's still-antiquated rules, none is more in need of a fix than the one mandating disqualification for signing a scorecard deemed incorrect because of something uncovered after the fact — especially as it applies to the majors. The controversy involving Woods at the Masters might have been worse had he been DQ'd, and in either case, it required some very tortured and ultimately unsatisfying logic to keep him in the field.

If golf insists on being the only big-time sport running a "Crime Stoppers" call-in service, the governing bodies — the USGA and the Royal & Ancient — should meet with pro tours around the world and modify the rules governing scorecards at the top level of the game. Let them assess the appropriate penalty for the violation whenever conclusive evidence turns up, but without piling on a disqualification.

TV sets, after all, are only going to get bigger and better. If golf aims to do the same, there's no time like the present to fix it.

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