Let’s Not Go to the Videotape

By M. James Ward
M. James Ward
M. James Ward
April 29, 2017 Updated: April 29, 2017

After a series of incidents involving television viewers calling in regarding specific rules violations, the two leading golf associations, the United States Golf Association (USGA) and R&A, have attempted to provide guidance with a new Decision to the Rules of Golf announced April 25. 

Before going forward, it’s crucial to highlight Decision 34-3/10 is not per se a new Rule of Golf, but it provides elasticity for those running tournaments in adding two new benchmarks: “reasonable standard of judgment” and “naked eye.”

The new decision now states that when a player determines a position in situations that include the nearest point of relief or replacing a lifted ball, he or she should not be held to “the degree of precision that can sometimes be provided by video technology.” According to the key language, “so long as the player does what can reasonably be expected under the circumstances to make an accurate determination, the player’s reasonable judgment will be accepted, even if later shown to be inaccurate by the use of video evidence.”

What is “reasonable” leaves room for interpretation and subjects tournament officials to endless critiques by outsiders claiming the judgment used was faulty. 

The “naked eye” standard is a response in large part to Anna Nordqvist being penalized two strokes during her three-hole aggregate playoff with Brittany Lang at last year’s U.S. Women’s Open after high-definition, slow-motion video showed her to have brushed sand during her backswing in a fairway bunker on the second hole of the playoff. Nordqvist said she had been unaware of touching the sand. The new decision states that if a committee concludes that such an act “could not reasonably have been seen with the naked eye and the player was not otherwise aware of the potential breach, the player will be deemed not to have breached the Rules, even when video technology shows otherwise.”

In years past, evidence of any type, whether from those attending an event or those watching at home via a televised event could report alleged rules violations and have the potential to impact the final outcome of the event. What will happen from this point going forward is uncertain. For a game that often moves at a glacial pace—both on and off the course—the announcement by the two primary governing bodies provides a high degree of uncertainty in its application and impact. A series of new draft rules for golf has also been brought forward, but the implementation date will not be until 2019. The governing bodies opted to get involved now given the likelihood of future similar situations.

The momentum to make such a swift and new standard came from an event that happened just a few weeks ago. 

LPGA star Lexi Thompson was penalized four strokes while leading late in the final round of the ANA Inspiration event. The penalties were assessed after a viewer watching the event during Saturday’s third round claimed Thompson had not properly placed her ball on a putting green and therefore should be penalized for having played from a wrong place. 

The enforcement did not come the same day as when the infraction happened. It took place the next day during the final round; Thompson eventually lost in a playoff. Golf is the only sport where viewers can call in with alleged violations and have such contributions play a major role in ultimately deciding an event’s outcome. 

At last year’s U.S. Open at Oakmont, a caller raised issue with whether eventual winner Dustin Johnson’s ball had moved on the putting green because of an action he had caused. The USGA did subject Johnson to a one-stroke-penalty and fortunately for the Association such a post-round penalty had no impact in deciding the championship.

The new Decision does not address calls being made from television and the resulting nonstop playing back of video in slow motion and with maximum close-ups to show what may have been missed by those on the scene. 

In the case of Johnson, the time line between when the viewer call was made and when the officials at the event actually approached Johnson took several holes to happen. In real time, the event was impacted because those playing on the course did not know exactly where they stood in regards to the leader Johnson. 

For Thompson, the double whammy was not only being penalized for incorrectly remarking her ball on the putting green, but being hit with another two-stroke penalty for signing an incorrect scorecard when her third round concluded. What had looked like a certain major championship win for Thompson provided a clear black eye to the sport in terms of rules being administered. 

Golf still maintains a long-time belief that players keep the score of their fellow competitor. It matters not what factually may have happened during the event or what is seen on television by viewers. The accuracy of the scorecard is supreme. Such an elevation of accounting has perturbed many in the golf world, especially general sports fans not nuanced on the traditions of golf. 

In Thompson’s case, the uproar against the additional two strokes being applied because of a scorecard error was viewed as simply piling on beyond reasonableness. For LPGA officials there was little wiggle room given the existing language of what the rules state on such matters. 

Clearly, figuring out what role, if any, regarding calls from outside observers needs to be addressed squarely. Those in charge of key events will also need to work with both the USGA and R&A regarding the procedures for post-round penalties and if such penalties have a statute of limitations concerning the next day’s round of play. The same attention regarding how scorecard issues are handled is of no less concern too and whether it is now time to provide for a clearly different process. 

As much as the USGA and R&A have attempted to provide a bit more clarity to the rules processes they enforce, the Thompson debacle is clearly one that provided a much needed wake-up call. The tougher part is to how to move forward. The waters ahead for golf’s tournament navigation are clearly unknown. All hands within the sport will need to be on deck working together to make sure the appropriate protocols are sorted out and implemented consistently.

The stakes for the sport are indeed high.

M. James Ward, a member of Golf Writer’s Association of America (GWAA) and past member of Met Golf Writer’s Association (MGWA), has reported on golf’s grandest events since 1980 in a variety of forums.