Golf | 28 Apr 2017 | By Michael Vlismas

Golf pushes stop on TV rules gurus

Several years ago I recall Nick Price saying it was common knowledge there were a number of players on tour who “fudged” their ball marking on the green.

In other words, they replaced their golf ball a couple of inches closer to the hole after they’d marked it.

The Lexi Thompson issue brought this whole matter to the fore again, and even prompted a new decision on the Rules of Golf.

As you’ll recall, Thompson was penalised four shots during the ANA Inspiration earlier this month. The infringement took place during the third round, where a TV viewer reported that Thompson had incorrectly replaced her ball on the 17th green. Thompson was informed of this during the final round and went on to lose the LPGA Tour’s Major in a playoff.

This prompted a flood of Tweets and comments from fellow players, Tiger Woods included, saying TV viewers should not be allowed to make such judgement calls on golfers.

This past week the Royal and Ancient and the United States Golf Association came out with a new decision that limits the use of video technology in making such calls in the future.

Applying the “naked eye test”, the new decision basically states that players may be able to avoid any penalty if their violation could not be spotted with the naked eye. For example, a player accidently moving a twig by his ball and which can only be seen with the use of the advanced slomo and HD technology most golf fans have access to in their homes.

Players can also now avoid a penalty if the rules officials decide they have acted within the bounds of “reasonable judgement”. Obviously, this one is a lot trickier to interpret.

So is such a move by the governing bodies justified?

There are arguments for and against.

Not surprisingly, the majority of players feel it’s a positive step in the game. Why should somebody sitting at home be able to affect the outcome of a professional sporting contest? To be fair, there is no other sport I am aware of where a member of the public can phone in a rules query that can significantly change the outcome of a contest. If this were to become the norm in professional sport, then football and rugby should have similar hotlines for fans to call in on. But this is not football, where it’s considered good gamesmanship if a player can convince the referee into awarding a free kick for a dive. Or rugby, where a punch right in front of a touch judge often goes unnoticed by him but not by millions watching at home.

So if we agree that golf is held to a much higher ethical standard than most professional sports, then the timing of such calls should be taken into account. I think a simple way to have solved this would have been to allow no further discussion on an incident once a round has been completed, and not to come back a day later and penalise a player for something no rules official spotted.

But that’s now a moot point. The new decision is effective immediately.

Another case has been made for the fact that golf may have taken a backward step here in the sense that, while other sports are pushing for more use of technology to get their borderline calls right, golf has effectively limited this. And this at a time when the game has made some pretty progressive rules changes of late.

And yet another case has been made that just because you make a decision to remove video technology from rules infringements in the game doesn’t mean it’s gone. The public will continue to scrutinise and the world of social media will continue to pronounce judgement on such matters.

Then there are those who are saying all of this can be avoided by the player simply getting it right and marking the ball properly. End of story. After all, the majority of us do so correctly and well within the rules.

But the majority of golf’s professionals do not get the TV time the leaders of a tournament get, so in all objectivity we cannot proclaim to have any certain knowledge of how many players mark their ball correctly and how many don’t. We only have their word, which is what the game is built upon. Self-regulation.

So this brings us back to the player. Essentially, what we’re dealing with is Lexi Thompson infringing a Rule of Golf by incorrectly replacing her ball and being penalised. But because this is golf we’re also asking a secondary question: Did Lexi Thompson intend to gain an advantage by doing so?

I’ve studied the video evidence and the commentary of the various rules officials. The greatest evidence against her is the fact that when Thompson initially marked her ball with a coin, the coin was “not visible” behind her ball. Then, when she replaced her ball, the coin was “now visible”. The rules officials that presented this to her in the final round said to Thompson several times, “We know there was no intent”. This after they had watched the footage themselves. So to be clear, the rules officials themselves were satisfied Thompson had no intent to break the rules. But you may want to argue that intent or no intent, a rule was infringed and should be penalised.

Looking at the footage, a case can certainly be made that Thompson replaced the ball incorrectly, but not nearer the hole and maybe even just a little sideways of her original mark, which allows for the visibility of the coin. And the visibility of the coin from the viewer’s angle, not Thompson’s angle. The vantage point of the TV viewer is completely opposite to that of Thompson in this case.

It seems a painful splitting of hairs, doesn’t it, but this is golf – the game where inches matter.

Frankly, I think you let the rules officials at the tournament do the job they are trained and paid to do, and those watching at home should no more be allowed to weigh in on this than somebody watching a Super Rugby match and phoning from their living room to influence the awarding of a try or not.

And it still leaves room for all the debate and questioning you want to have around the matter, on any platforms you may have access to.