Sunday, January 30, 2011

Intent and the Rules of Golf

The Rules of Golf as they appear in the USGA Museum's Seagle Electronic Golf Library available at
Is there room in the Rules of Golf for the intent of the player when deciding on whether or not that player has committed an infraction?

It is a question that is gripping the golf world right now in the light of a number of high-profile (and many would say stupid and unnecessary) penalties and disqualifications for minor rules infractions where the players committed breaches without even knowing or realizing it.  These concerns have sparked spirited debate on both sides of the issue.  On the one hand, rules purists argue that the Rules of Golf are what they are -- they are black and white and there is no room for intent and if you commit an infraction, as measured by the letter of the rule, you have to bear the consequences.  On the other hand, many people have commented that it doesn't make much sense for a player to be disqualified for a breach of a rule that he did not realize occurred or where he did not gain any advantage.  We here at HGO feel compelled to mix it up a little bit on this issue!

Just to provide a little context for some of the high profile rules gaffes of late, let's look at three of the most recent examples.

Ross Kinnaird / Getty Images
1) Padraig Harrington's disqualification at the Abu Dhabi Championship.  The lovable Irishman was disqualified for signing an incorrect scorecard after his ball moved by a dimple or two when he accidentally touched it while he was in the process of removing his ballmark.  Harrington actually realized at the time that he touched the ball in the process of removing his mark, but he looked at the logo mark on his ball and determined it had not moved.  The violation was emailed to European Tour officials by a viewer watching the event on television (who of course had the benefit of high def tv and the ability to pause and rewind the incident frame by frame).  However, the incident did not come to light until after Harrington completed his round and signed for an incorrect scorecard, signing for a score lower than what he should have carded because he did not assess himself a two stroke penalty under Rule 20-3 for not replacing the ball prior to putting it back into play.  By signing for a score lower than he should have had with the penalty, he was disqualified under Rule 6-6d.

2) Camilo Villegas, or "El Hombre Arana," was disqualified from the PGA Tour's season opening event at Kapalua in Maui after swatting away some loose grass clippings while his ball was in the process of returning to his feet after failing to get his chip all the way up the hill fronting the 15th green.  (As an aside, I feel for Camilo on the chip shot, as I had the exact same thing happen to me while playing Kapalua back in October -- I tried to get cute and hit a bump and run up the hill and came up about 5 yards short, which then led to the ball rolling back about 50 yards back to where I was standing.  Ouch.)  This violation was reported by another television viewer.  The rule that Villegas violated was 23-1, which states, "When a ball is in motion, a loose impediment that might influence the movement of the ball must not be removed."  Villegas did not assess the required two stroke penalty, signed for an incorrect scorecard that was higher than what it should have been, and he was disqualified from the tournament.

Getty Images
3) Ian Poulter was disqualified at the Dubai World Championships last December after a very strange incident that occurred on the second playoff hole.  Poulter had marked his ball on the green with a coin, and while reading the putt, his ball slipped out of his hand and fell on top of his coin, causing the coin to move.  He saw it happen, called the rules official over and imposed on himself a one stroke penalty, effectively handing the playoff victory to Robert Karlsson.

So, are these unfortunate instances just examples of harsh but proper penalties for rules violations, or are they the final tipping point for those who say the Rules of Golf are stuck in the early part of last century and don't make sense anymore?  Its not an easy question, and both sides have valid arguments.

In each of these instances listed above (and more than a few others) the players did not mean to do anything wrong or inappropriate and did not gain any competitive advantage as a result of their issues, yet faced dire consequences nonetheless.  The harshest penalties were handed out to Harrington and Villegas, as they were disqualified not for the underlying rules violation themselves, but because they signed an incorrect scorecard.

First, the scorecard rule has to change.  This seems like an easy fix, and an obvious one, but for tradition conscious conservative organizations like the USGA and the R&A, it is likely to be a difficult fix to accept.  Neither Harrington nor Villegas intended to sign an incorrect card.  In fact, they did not know there was an issue until long after their cards were signed.  Why not just allow the player to sign an amended scorecard, accept the penalty as a result of the violation, and then move forward in the tournament?  If the U.S. Constitution can have room for amendments, certainly the golf scorecard can as well.  

It is tough to feel too bad for guys like Harrington and Villegas when you consider the fact that they are established tour stars who can just chalk this one up to experience and move on to a bog paycheck at next week's tour stop.  However, imagine if something like this happened to a guy in the last event of the season, grinding it out to make the 125th spot on the money list and trying to keep his Tour card?  If that guy gets DQd, it is a brutally unfair result.

Second, the USGA should also accept PGA Tour boss Tim Finchem's recommendation for a  "full and thorough" review of the Rules of Golf.  The USGA should consider where there is room in the rules for some compromise.  Poulter's "transgression" is a perfect example -- in a situation similar to that, where the player notices there was an issue with a moved ballmark, for instance, there is no reason for a penalty if the player can address and clarify the problem prior to putting the next ball in play.  I hope the USGA takes this as an opportunity to get together and convene a panel of USGA officials along with current and former players to go through the rule book one by one and see where there is some room for revision and updating.  While they are at it, it would also be advisable to try and make the rules more user-friendly by trying to write them in plain English.  I mean, the rules don't have to be as enthralling as a Dan Brown novel, but if you have to read a rule 4 or 5 times and you still only borderline understand it, there is a problem.

Third, if a rule violation is only visible after scrutinizing an HD television, and is not visible to the naked eye (like Harrington's dimple issue) then we really need to consider whether or not it is even fair to assess a penalty in that instance.  Harrington realized he nicked his ball when pulling up his mark but looked at the logo as a point of reference and was able to determine, from his perspective, that the ball did not move.  The Rules of Golf are still largely self-enforced, and should stay that way.  If a player, in good faith, makes a judgment that there was no violation (oftentimes in consultation with a Rules Official) then that should be the end of it.  Death by HDTV seems a little much.

What do you think?  Where is there room for compromise?  Should the USGA even be reviewing the rules or  should the players just be more careful?  I would love to hear from you!


  1. Mr. Becker, excellent analysis... 2 thoughts. I put it to the audience - Bubba Watson is going to have a phenomenal year, and I contribute that largely to his University of Georgia rearing and his pink shaft. Quite the pedigree!
    Also - a point of contention - Johnny Vegas is a solid moniker for a lounge act; not golf. It follows that the likes Bubba Watsons name are a great name for a Nascar champion, a BBQ Chef, or better yet - a taxidermist.
    Keep the great blog machine rolling!

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