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Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Of Golf Balls and Footballs

The controversy over DJ's one-stroke penalty continues. Today I'd like to clarify what I believe are the three major questions that the golf community -- and the USGA in particular -- have to answer if they want to prevent these kinds of problems in the future.

DJ over the controversial putt

1) Why put a rules official with each group if that official's ruling isn't binding?
This is the most obvious question that needs to be asked. DJ's official ruled that there was no infraction, to play on. The ball was NOT replaced, which an infraction demanded. Therefore DJ couldn't possibly avoid a penalty if the decision of the official APPOINTED BY THE USGA wasn't binding.

I'm reminded of the LifeLock commercials. For those of you, especially overseas, who may not have heard of LifeLock, they're a company that claims they monitor and prevent credit problems. Here's a typical commercial:

At least this guy is upfront about it -- unlike the USGA, he doesn't claim that his presence means anything. The USGA will have to address this problem if they don't want potential golfers to see golf as a game with impossible rules.

2) How can you demand the ball remain still when you want greens where the ball 'trickles' 30, 40, even 50 feet after it should have stopped?
This goes back to a post I did where I mentioned Phil Mickelson's misgivings about the speeds of classic green complexes. (The specifics about greens are near the end of that post. Geoff Shackelford has voiced similar concerns on many occasions.) Classic courses designed with more slope on the greens assumed much slower green speeds, perhaps 8-10 on the stimpmeter. But the USGA insists on speeding these greens up to 12-13, speeds where the ball can't be expected to stay still.

And even though the USGA said that Oakmont has faster greenspeeds "in its DNA", the fact remains that they estimated that the greens were only about 70% of the firmness and speed they desired. What would have happened if they had gotten the green speeds they wanted? Such disregard for simple physics is simply begging for rules violations like this.

3) Are we expecting too much from video replay in our rulings?
This is where football enters the picture. In case you don't watch NFL football, one of the most contentious areas of the rules there has become a real embarrassment for the game. And what is that problem?

Ironically, no one can say for sure what constitutes a 'catch' anymore. Before video replay, it was pretty easy to say when someone had caught a pass and when they hadn't. But now, with the ability to make extreme digital close-ups in ultra-slow motion, referees are forced to try and determine whether a diving catch was actually touching the ground a thousandth of a second before it was 'caught'.

In other words, the question used to be "Did they hold on to the ball when they hit the ground?" Now they can't even determine when the ball was actually caught, or even how much a ball might move in a player's hands when a catch is made and still be considered a 'catch'. And this confusion has already changed the outcome of games.

Take a look at this catch by the Dallas Cowboys' Dez Bryant in a 2015 Divisional Playoff game. Ten years ago this would have been ruled a catch; it's pretty clear that Dez is holding the ball in one hand when he hits the ground, and the ball stays firmly in his hand when he lays out on the ground. (He hit the ground hard enough for the ball to bounce loose at impact if his grip wasn't good.) But extreme slo-mo shows tiny wiggles that happen too fast for the naked eye to see -- and therefore wouldn't affect the ruling at regular speed. (And it's not that I'm a Cowboys fan -- I'm a Panthers fan. But this kind of thing is happening too often, and this is one play that I remember well enough to find easily.)

The answer to football's catch riddle -- and to golf's moving ball question -- is to create some simple criteria that are easily seen and verified in real time. In Dez's catch, the fact that he had the ball in one hand and it remained in that hand after he hit the ground should have been enough to say that was a catch. Instead, the Cowboys' run to the Super Bowl was ended.

The USGA should make a simple test for moving balls. Did the player ground his or her club behind the ball? That should be sufficient in most cases. If they need more, tell players not to make practice strokes within one putterhead length of the ball to either side. These are objective criteria, not "more likely than not" subjective criteria.

Here's MY rule for rules questions: If the test can't be a simple one, then the problem in question shouldn't be a rules infraction. If you can't KNOW FOR SURE that a rule was broken, then you don't need a rule in the first place.

These are the issues that the USGA needs to face concerning the Rules of Golf. If they don't, things are only going to get trickier going forward.

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