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Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Why Armchair Officials Are Unneeded

I'll do my "5 to Watch" at the Masters post tomorrow. Today it's time for my promised rant about letting TV viewers affect tournament rulings. I think there are a number of things which are being ignored in the debate, even after the Thompson ruling at the ANA Sunday. I'd like to look at three of them in this post.

Point #1: Allowing armchair officials actually works against the ideal of creating a level playing field for all competitors.

The Rules of Golf, like the rules of most sports, were never designed to deal with a digital world. That's part of the reason we're having these struggles now, as are many other sports organizations like the NFL. Of course, golf is having a worse time than most, simply because the other organizations don't allow viewer input at all. For example, former Vice President of Officiating for the NFL Mike Pereira tweeted:

In fact, here's an interesting note on how the NFL will now treat video reviews, as expressed in a decision made at the NFL Owners' Meeting just this past March 28:
Most notable Tuesday was the change in handling officiating of video replays. Referees will now watch replays on the field using tablets, eliminating “going under the hood” to the watch on television monitors.

League officiating chief Dean Blandino and his staff in New York will make the final decisions on those calls, with input from the referee, who in the past was the ultimate arbiter after consulting with league headquarters.

“And I think that’s important to remember, we’re not taking the referee out of the equation,” Blandino has said. “The referee will still be involved, the referee will still give input, but will no longer have the final say.”
For those of you who don't understand why the NFL would want to minimize the part played by the actual refs on the field during a video review, you have to realize that NFL games are taking place all over the nation and each game has a different set of refs. What the NFL wants to do is have only one voice in EVERY game making the final decision during video reviews, in order to get one consistent set of rulings for the entire league.

In other words, the NFL decided that you make the game fairer for every player by MINIMIZING the number of people involved in officiating. And when the golf tours allow viewers -- who aren't even part of the appointed officiating crew -- to influence decisions, they actually increase the likelihood that players will be treated unfairly.

Lexi's ruling was a case in point. Millions of fans watched the same broadcast but saw no violation. However, one person who discovered a problem 24 hours later probably cost her a major. In no other sport -- where only the officials on the field are allowed to make such rulings -- would a travesty like that have been allowed. Which brings us to...

Point #2: Officials are unbiased. Fans are not.

I realize that this point is going to offend some people, but we have to deal with it. And while I don't mean to insinuate that every fan is motivated in the following ways, the nature of the violations that get reported are problematic. For when fans call tour officials to "report a violation" -- something that none of the officials, nor millions of other fans saw, and especially when finding said violation requires examination of extreme video close-ups to verify what happened (and those close-ups weren't shown as part of the broadcast) -- we have to ask what kind of fan goes to that much trouble.

And the answers aren't very pretty.

We may be dealing with people who feel powerless, and they boost their feelings of self-esteem by trying to effect the actions of "famous people." I think we'd all agree that these people have a psychological problem that requires therapy, not the validation of ruining things for the "famous person." Granted, this is less dangerous than stalking or attempting to murder a celebrity, but it's still not something we want to re-enforce.

We may be dealing with fans who will do anything to help "their" player win. In this case, the player has been specifically targeted, rather than the randomness of the previous example. And since a particular player has been targeted, the integrity of the field has clearly been compromised if we allow these "violations" to be heard.

But perhaps the darkest possibility is that the entire event is being manipulated. Whether the tours want to talk about it or not, we all know that a great deal of sports betting goes on around the world. I wonder how much money -- betted legally or not -- changed hands when Lexi was assessed a 4-stroke penalty and the odds on who might win the ANA changed dramatically?

Worse yet, imagine how much money could be made if the bettor KNEW that the odds were going to change because he or she orchestrated that change? This possibility simply can't be ignored.

One of the sides of the debate I've heard over the last day or so is that "golf is different from other sports, and this is part of what makes our game different." But I would argue that every decision we make has consequences, and we can't simply ignore some of them because we don't want to admit they exist. There is a reason why other sports don't allow the fans to influence the referees in this manner.

Tell me: Is the fear that someone may occasionally make a cut because of a missed penalty really worth risking such wholesale manipulation of the sport itself? I can't agree with that. The risk is too great.

When ANYONE can affect the officiating of a game, we open the door to all sorts of manipulation that can destroy the integrity of that game. The only way to prevent that is to stop it at the source. We simply MUST limit the number of people whose voices matter. If we don't, we're being irresponsible toward the players in the field and the vast majority of fans who are content to let the appointed officials do their jobs.

Point #3: Eliminating the outside voices will not allow more violators to "get away with it." Rather, the fix is rather simple to implement.

In listening to the debates over the last day or so, I've been amazed at how easily we are overwhelmed by technology. How many officials are needed in the TV truck, for example? Who will keep watch on the 30 or more video streams coming from the on-course cameras? Perhaps we need all the viewers to help us keep watch on the field, to make sure no one cheats!

There are so many flaws in this line of thinking that I almost don't know where to start. But I'll try.

First of all, we don't need to worry about all the cameras on the course. In case no one has yet realized it, all of those millions of fans are watching the exact same cameras -- namely, the network broadcast stream. I'm pretty sure the tours can find one or two officials who are willing to take a beer and some pretzels, head off into an air-conditioned room, and settle into comfy chairs in front of a large-screen TV to watch the broadcast! Since this is such a strenuous job, we can rotate the officials every hour or so. That way we'll always have fresh eyes watching.

We can even give them a direct intercom to the TV truck. That way, if our "official viewers" should see something, they can buzz the official in the truck: "Hey, can you take a look at Lexi's ballmark on 17? She might have marked it wrong. Thanks."

Is that really so hard?

As I said earlier, The Rules of Golf were never designed to deal with a digital world. But that really shouldn't be a problem when it comes to enforcing them. We talk constantly about the integrity of our players, and we build entire youth programs around the values our game teaches. But we seem compelled to contradict that by our actions...

After all, if our golfers are so honest, then why do we need super-magnification on our cameras to detect when the ball has been misplaced by a single inch? It's obvious, isn't it? It's because WE MUST PUNISH ANY IMPERFECTION WITH THE MAXIMUM ALLOWABLE PENALTY! WE MUST NOT TOLERATE LAWBREAKERS, EVEN IF THEY CLEARLY DO SO BY ACCIDENT AND THEIR TRANSGRESSION HAS NO MEASURABLE EFFECT ON THE GAME!

Our game has reached a point where it is no longer about having fun. It's about the paranoia of being perfect in every possible way:
  • We MUST have perfect mechanics, or our swings are subject to criticism.
  • We MUST hit every wedge shot within a statistically acceptable range, or our players look as if they just ate a live slug and they slam the ground with their clubs.
  • And we MUST call every penalty possible on ourselves, lest our integrity be called into question. You say that you caused that ball to shift position by ONE WHOLE DIMPLE? My God, man! Call that one-shot penalty on yourself or forever be a pariah among your peers!
Other sports -- all of which accept the fact that there will be occasional errors in the officiating -- continue to grow in popularity, much faster than golf. Apparently the fans are less concerned with perfection than with fair competition. Perhaps golf should adopt the same attitude, especially since we are so proud of our players' integrity. Why not trust them for a change?

But there is no longer any room for human frailty in our game, is there? We can't just present a good product; it has to be a perfect product. It doesn't matter whether the so-called violation has any effect on the outcome of the game or not. And in the process, we teach the youngsters coming up that nothing we do is ever good enough. We teach them that legalism and punishment are more important than logic and common sense. We teach them, in effect, to be "holier than thou."

I think that makes "growing the game" a good deal harder than it needs to be.

There has been a great deal of debate so far over the proposed rule changes being considered by the USGA and the R&A. Everyone is debating whether individual changes are integral changes to the game or just overdue logic. We're even beginning to ask if intent should matter when enforcing the rules. These debates are necessary. They're how we discover what is important in our rules.

But perhaps common sense should play a bigger part in our rules. Lexi was penalized 4 shots for placing her ball one inch to the left of her original line... on a flat putt measuring twelve inches in length. While we don't want our players to get sloppy about marking their ball, there has to be some point at which we simply say, "Oh well, it didn't make any difference to the outcome. But you need to be more careful from now on."

It happened 24 hours earlier, folks. It didn't affect how difficult Lexi's putt was, and the integrity of the field wasn't harmed. But that 4-shot penalty, assessed in the midst of the final round, DID affect the integrity of the field and tainted the whole event. Even So Yeon Ryu, who benefited from the ruling, stood there crying at the end and told Lisa Cornwell that it just didn't feel right.

When the Rules create the very problems they were meant to prevent, it's time for the Rules to change.

I think that any "infraction of the rules" that can't be seen with the naked eye from a few feet away ISN'T an infraction. That's how the rules were enforced when The Rules of Golf were originally written. If the infraction couldn't be seen, the players were expected to call it on themselves. And no one worried that someone would "get away" with breaking a rule. If we modern types believe they will, unless we use the most high-powered enforcement tools available...

Well, maybe we don't believe in personal integrity as much as we claim.

At the very least, we don't need millions of viewers all calling in about it. Video wasn't part of the Rules when they were originally set down. It DEFINITELY shouldn't be part of them now.

End of rant. For today, anyway. ;-)


  1. Well said. This whole controversy is ridiculous



  4. IK Kim missed a short putt after marking five years earlier