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Tuesday, July 11, 2017

The Rahm Ruling Reconsidered

The Rahm Ruling on Sunday demonstrates how complicated it is to simplify the rules, especially in regards to using video. I'd like to take another look at the bigger issues, the arguments for both sides, and propose one possible rule that might minimize the problems.

Jon Rahm


Just to sum up the original situation: Jon Rahm needed to move his ball marker for his playing partner, but didn't replace the ball in exactly the same place. The ET rules official decided that Jon didn't do it on purpose and that his error wasn't large enough to affect the outcome, so Jon wasn't penalized.

In my view, the two sides in this issue each raised valid points for why the decision was correct or incorrect.
  • Those who agree say that there was no intent to cheat and that the error was minor. To use Jon's example, it wasn't as if he misplaced his ball by three feet on a six-foot putt. This viewpoint believes the rules should adjust the penalties to allow for some human error (that's the "intent" in this).
  • Those who disagree argue that a rule was broken nevertheless and that "intent" is an insufficient guideline for enforcing the Rules of Golf. The main problem -- in the Lexi Thompson ruling, which is often referenced in regard to this ruling -- was the extra two-stroke penalty for signing an incorrect scorecard. This viewpoint argues for the fairness of the penalties, rather than elimination of them.
I will also add a third viewpoint: Neither side mentioned, although I believe it's important, that the error was only discovered via video replay, which meant the ruling was delayed. While it was handled during the round, the delay still affected the choices available for dealing with the infraction AND the ruling itself could have influenced the outcome. (Although personally I think Jon had the tournament pretty well in hand!)

Let me deal with the original two sides first.

I agree that the rules should make some allowance for human error, especially when that error has little or no effect on the shot that is played. We aren't machines, after all, and this is a game. As long as the rules are interpreted consistently across the field, the fairness and integrity of the game can be maintained for all -- and that is the ultimate goal of rules.

However, "intent" is an unacceptably hazy standard for maintaining that integrity. It makes two faulty assumptions.

The first one is best summed up by a much older friend from my childhood. This adult once told me that "rules are for honest folk." What he meant is that people who obey rules are people who want to obey rules. If someone is dishonest, making a rule won't stop them. It will only define the punishment they'll face if they get caught.

But more important is this ruling's unspoken belief that "intent" can be judged by the size of the error. Let me give you an example:
Suppose a player notices that, on the line of his putt, there is some damage to the green that may affect how his putt behaves but which he is not allowed to repair. He marks his putt to the side, then replaces his ball on the other side of his marker. This might move his ball less than an inch to the side -- and no closer to the hole -- yet it now allows an undamaged path to the hole.
Video may not show this damage, and indeed the angle of the video may not accurately show how much the ball was actually moved. Jon alluded to this viewing angle problem when asked about the ruling, but he noted that it might show excess movement. In either case, the video evidence doesn't present a true image.

Although the error is small, in my example it would certainly affect the shot in ways that aren't clear merely from the size of the error. But more importantly, once we have the full story, there is clear intent by the player to improve his line here... but that intent can't be determined merely by the size of the "error." Rules should focus on aspects of the error that can be easily quantified, without argument, by all parties.

In order for a rule to be applied consistently to every player in the field, the mere fact that a noticeable error has been committed has to be the criteria for applying a rule... and for determining an appropriate penalty. Ultimately, it's all about the penalties.


But I am still bothered by the timeliness of the ruling. This is what determines how many options are available to us, especially if we want to eliminate unfair penalties.

If an error is recognized at the moment it happens, players often have the option to correct their errors and avoid penalties entirely. At the very least, the penalties can be minimized. There are two reasons video has come under such scrutiny:
  • Not all players in the field receive the same video exposure, therefore the potential for unequal treatment is greater for some players than others. I don't think this can be ignored, simply because the benefits of avoiding a penalty can be greater for a player struggling to make the cut than for a player leading a tournament. If you're playing well enough to be in contention, a penalty may cost you a win. But if you're playing poorly, a penalty might cost you a Tour card... and your livelihood.
  • A delayed ruling can multiply your penalties. Let's face it -- had this not bitten Lexi so dramatically, we might not be having these conversations now!
Ironically, the problem presented by video seems quite similar (to me, at least) to the old question: "If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?"

And if you don't believe that's a real problem, just go to the Wikipedia page devoted to that question. Merely reading the section on the metaphysics of the question will test your mind!

Let me put that question in more modern terms, and I think you'll better understand the problem.

Everyday we are surrounded by radio programs that are broadcast by vast numbers of radio stations around the planet. However, I bet you never think twice about them. Why? Because you can't hear them unless you have a radio tuned to one of the stations. Sound waves can't be heard unless there is a "receiver" capable of converting them to something our brains recognize as actual noise.

Falling trees do the same thing. They don't make a noise; rather, they create sound waves that our ears pick up and our brains convert into a noisy crash. Whether someone is there or not, the action happens -- whether it's the tree falling or, from my earlier example, the radio station broadcasting -- but there is nothing to tell us it happened. That's where the metaphysics come in.

Without someone to observe it, the action might as well have never happened.

Now think about our golf problem. Until someone observes the rules infraction, it might as well have never happened. Of course it happened... but there will be no penalty because no one saw anything that needs to be punished. If no one saw it happen at the time, but a video camera captured the action, you can make a legitimate argument that there was no infraction until the video was seen by someone.

Yeah, I know... it sounds weird. But from a practical standpoint, it's true. Unless someone SEES an infraction being committed, there is no infraction to be punished. And, as Jon pointed out, the viewpoint of the video may not be trustworthy or even understood. (As far as I know, I'm the only person to point out that the Lexi video shows that she couldn't even see her marker... and I had to try and reenact the video to discover that. Do you think they're doing that in the tour video trailers?)

So it seems to me that we need to take this "metaphysical" aspect of video evidence into account when we make our rules.


How do I take the metaphysical questions into account?

That's simple enough. If a rules infraction is discovered using video, that infraction alone can be penalized because -- at least, I would argue -- the infraction didn't even exist until it was actually seen, so it can't have the same consequences it would have had if discovered earlier. In Lexi's case, that would have meant the two-stroke penalty for an incorrect scorecard wasn't included. After all, if the infraction "didn't happen" until after the next day, she couldn't have signed an incorrect scorecard!

I think that's a general principle that would apply to most (if not all) video-related rulings.
The infraction seen on the video is the ONLY one that can be penalized, not any other infractions that might have been a side effect of the video infraction.
Likewise, I think we have to remove any appeals to "intent" when we judge infractions. If a player is honest, they didn't intend to break the rule. And if they aren't honest, do you really expect them to say, "Yeah, I did it on purpose"? That's just ignoring reality. Forget that "intent" crap. If you broke the rule, you broke the rule and there's a penalty to be paid.

However -- and I'm applying this only to a mismarked ball infraction, because each situation should be judged on its own merits -- I think the penalty should be changed. And here's my logic:
  • If there's no infraction, there's no penalty.
  • If there's an infraction and the player corrects it before playing, there's no penalty.
  • If there's an infraction and the player doesn't correct it before playing, there's a two-stroke penalty.
So, if the mismarked ball infraction is found via video -- which means the player had no opportunity to correct it before playing and thus avoid the penalty altogether, I say we split the difference:
If a mismarked ball infraction is discovered via video evidence at any time after the player has finished the hole and begun the next hole, the player will be assessed a ONE-shot penalty.
To me, that seems the fairest answer. "Intent" is eliminated as a criterion for the penalty because "intent" can't be unquestionably determined by another person. The player has broken the rule, so they are penalized. But since the ruling was made too late for the player to have an opportunity to avoid the penalty, they are given a lesser penalty to reflect the "error" of a delayed ruling.

I don't know that the ruling bodies will consider my suggestion. But I think it's the best way to deal with the unpredictable and uneven nature of video rulings -- again, not everyone gets videoed -- and the need to uphold the Rules of Golf.

Because if it doesn't matter whether we follow the rules or not, who needs them?

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