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Saturday, January 22, 2011

On Tape-Delayed Rules Infractions

Since Padraig Harrington got DQed for signing a wrong scorecard at Abu Dhabi, the debate about TV viewers calling in to report rules infractions has heated up again. Added to the Camilo Villegas DQ a couple of weeks ago, I thought I'd post my own opinion about the problem... and my thoughts are actually a bit different from what you've probably heard elsewhere.

You see, I think the problem is more complex than it appears at first glance, so it's not a simple rule change. First let me give you the "ground rules" I'm working from:
  • The rules are intended to "level the playing field" and prevent any player from getting an "unfair advantage" over the rest of the field, which to a large degree means they are a hedge against cheating.
  • The rules assume a player has the opportunity to defend himself against accusations of "taking an unfair advantage."
  • The rules may be complex but they are not particularly difficult to understand, and every player should be expected to know the rules and accept the penalty when they break them.
  • The rules should not be changed arbitrarily just to benefit fans or sponsors... but they should take both groups into account, since without them we don't have any televised golf!
  • Intent of the player is a tough thing to judge; intent of the rule is not.
Are we all agreed here? I think it's safe to say we are, so I'll move on to what I think are the real issues in this debate.

First of all, the vast majority of players have no intention of cheating... and if any other players believe they do, they'll take action to stop it. I'm not saying nothing ever gets by the players, but by-and-large they all want things done by the rules. In fact, though no one ever wants to call an infraction on themselves, it's almost a badge of honor nowadays to have done so. So, for the most part, I think we can drop intentional cheating from this discussion.

But tape-delayed tournaments add a wrinkle to this discussion that the rules have never addressed. There are several ways an infraction can be caught -- by the player, his playing partners, on-site officials, on-site TV crews, and even TV viewers who are watching a live broadcast -- and in each of these cases, the accused player has an opportunity to address the infraction before signing his or her card. This is important, because all the players are being DQed for breaking the same rule: Signing an incorrect scorecard.

In the case of tape-delayed rules infractions, the player is not given this chance. No one accused them of breaking any rules before they signed the card, and this is why the DQs have raised so much ire. It's particularly nasty when, as in Harrington's case, you can't even see the infraction unless you view it in slow motion replay; at regular speed, the ball simply appears to oscillate in place, which is NOT a penalty.

So how do we deal with this problem? It clearly needs to be addressed because tape delay didn't even exist when the rules were first conceived, and no one has attempted to update them yet. And you need to understand that simply saying "Phone calls from viewers of tape-delayed broadcasts will be ignored" doesn't address the problem because the infraction clearly happened and should be dealt with.

Make sure you understand that I don't really have a problem with viewers calling in violations as long as the player has a chance to deal with them before signing their card. It's the tape delays that give me a problem because players are being DQed not for the penalties that result in extra strokes, but for signing incorrect scorecards -- scorecards that would have been accepted as accurate without question before the age of tape delay. The arguments being made that these DQs are acceptable because they "maintain the integrity of the game" ignore the fact that tape delay is itself affecting the integrity of the game.

So here are my suggestions. Yes, suggestions with an S. This isn't a simple problem to solve. Let me start with Harrington, since his penalty is the easiest to deal with.

Personally, I have a problem calling penalties that can only be seen in slo-mo. If you can't identify the problem in real time, I don't think it should be called. However, I realize that's a two-edged sword that goes beyond this issue, so I won't argue that. For the sake of this discussion, if a penalty can be identified, we'll call it. Harrington thought his ball merely oscillated and no one else had a problem with it, but the slo-mo shows it did move. However, this minute amount of movement -- probably no more than a quarter-inch -- gave him no advantage over the field.

I'm proposing a basic rule that says:
"If an infraction is identified by a viewer during a tape-delayed broadcast but the player is not deemed to have received an advantage from it, the stroke penalty for that infraction will be added to the player's score. The player will NOT be DQed for signing an incorrect scorecard, because it was not called to his attention in a timely manner."
Please note: This rule specifies that no advantage is gained. If the ball rolls 2 or 3 inches and is not replaced, that WOULD constitute "gaining an advantage" and the player should be DQed. Let's face it -- if the ball moved that much and wasn't replaced, this infraction probably wasn't an accident.

I think it's safe to say that most of the debaters who are against the DQs would say this rule is acceptable. Under my "Harrington Rule," Padraig would have come out Friday morning, seen the replay, been informed that 2 strokes were added to his score, and allowed to continue playing... and I suspect most people involved in the game would have considered that a fair penalty, given the nature of the infraction.

However, Harrington's case is a very simple one. Harrington clearly knew the rule and just made an honest mistake -- again, a mistake that only became clear when viewed in slow motion replay -- without any intention of gaining an advantage. But the Villegas penalty is more complex because it's more than just a mistake. Villegas made an error that, although it stemmed from not knowing the rules and in this case didn't give him an advantage, it certainly could have and no one would be able to know his intent. That introduces some real problems that my "Harrington Rule" doesn't address.

Do you DQ Villegas if his ball runs through the area where he swept away the divot, yet only penalize him 2 strokes if it doesn't? Did sweeping away the divot improve his stance, thus "giving him an advantage"? Do you legislate a radius around the ball, and as long as the infraction didn't happen within it, you're ok? That just seems like an extra complication to me, but you can see the problem. The infraction Villegas committed is substantially different from Harrington's.

It seems to me that the USGA (or at least the PGA Tour) needs to enact my "Harrington Rule" to eliminate some of these senseless DQs caused by tape-delay calls. However, to do so, they need to go through the rules and make a determination about which infractions merely result in "mistakes" and which result in "advantages." The "Harrington Rule" should NOT be enforced across the board when considering tape-delayed calls because not all infractions have the same impact on play.

And how can the ruling bodies determine which infractions my "Harrington Rule" should be applied to? By determining the intent of the rule. For example, there was a debate last year when Michelle Wie "grounded" her club in a hazard after hitting the ball. Suppose this issue came up in a tape-delayed broadcast. Do we add penalty strokes or DQ the player?

Here's the real question: What is the intent of the rule? In this case, it's supposed to keep players from getting information about the lie before hitting the ball. My "Harrington Rule" would say that, once the ball was gone, grounding the club gave the player no advantage. Therefore the player would be penalized two strokes and not DQed.

I would have let Harrington play on with a 2-stroke penalty... but I still would have DQed Villegas. The infraction Camilo committed (1) created a possible advantage on a future shot and (2) couldn't be reversed, which clearly violates the intent of the rule.

I certainly don't believe Camilo meant any harm, but I can't see any way to let him continue playing in that situation without opening Pandora's Box. I'm sure some will argue that his infraction would have only received a 2-stroke penalty if it had been caught at the time. My argument is that the other infractions wouldn't have created an advantage for the player at all, even if the infraction hadn't been called; but Camilo's infraction could have resulted in a big advantage for him had it not been caught by the TV viewer. In this case, the DQ helps protect the field by reminding them that they can't be lax about the rules.

Or, to put it another way, all rules are not created equal. My "Harrington Rule" should be applied in a way that recognizes that. An honest mistake is one thing, but an honest mistake made because you don't know the rules is an excuse that could be badly abused. In that case, when "ignorance of the law" is called, it should probably carry some sort of penalty as well.

Especially when that call is tape-delayed.

1 comment:

  1. You have to take the USGA out of the equation. This is a televised professional tournament situation - so it is a local rule, not a rule book fix that is needed.

    Whatever fix, if there is one, has to be in house for the PGA Tour, Nationwide Tour, Champions Tour, LPGA Tour, Euro Tour...

    The USGA and R&A are given the responsibility of writing rules that cover the top players in the world all the way down to the 300 handicapper playing in a charity scramble.

    ReplyDelete