Padraig Harrington disqualified after viewer e-mails rules violation

January 22, 2011

Just another ho-hum day in the crazy, whirlwind life of Padraig Harrington.

On Thursday, he confused everyone with his 11 swing changes. On Friday, he was disqualified from the Abu Dhabi Championship for inadvertently and innocently breaking a rule on the seventh green in his first round. (Scroll down to watch a video of the violation.)

No one would ever have known if not for an e-mail sent to the European tour from yet another of what seems to be a growing army of TV snitches, as Ian Poulter calls them. And not even golf’s latest snitch could have spotted Harrington’s crime had he not been on his sofa pressing the pause, rewind, play and slow motion buttons on his high-definition TV.

The amateur rules official noticed that the Irishman’s ball moved after Harrington’s hand brushed it as he was removing his marker. Since Harrington didn’t replace the ball at the original spot, it should have been a two-stroke penalty. Because the penalty wasn’t assessed at the time, Harrington signed an incorrect scorecard after Thursday’s round, which led to the disqualification.

After the e-mail arrived, Andy McFee, the European Tour’s senior referee, had a sleepless night in Abu Dhabi. He viewed the video evidence about 60 times before concluding that Harrington’s ball had indeed moved forward by the length of about one-and-a-half dimples.

Asked if he thought such an incident makes golf’s rules look daft, McFee said: “Yes, I’d have to agree with that. The movement is so minimal. But it is clear that it moved. The rules deal in facts. Padraig is a class act.”

That’s one fact that is indisputable.

Harrington accepted his fate with his usual grace, good humor, humility and sportsmanship. “A lot worse things could happen. You could be five ahead going into the last round,” he said laughing. He was referring to the 2000 Benson & Hedges International, where he was disqualified on Sunday morning when it was discovered that he had failed to sign his scorecard on Thursday.

Harrington said he knew he had touched his ball but was certain it had not moved forward, so it never entered his head to call for a referee. McFee said the wobble forward happened in the half-second it took for Harrington to take his eyes off the ball and stand upright. “In slow motion, it’s pretty clear the ball has moved three dimples forward, and it’s come back maybe a dimple and a half,” Harrington said.

Golf’s rules have once again overshadowed the main event. It is only two months since Poulter suffered a one-stroke penalty to lose a playoff for the Dubai World Championship after he dropped his ball on his marker and it flipped over. Camilo Villegas was disqualified for signing an incorrect card during the opening event of the PGA Tour season earlier this month, also after a viewer spotted a rules violation.

Harrington refused to blame anyone other than himself. “I believe I’m not going to do anything untoward,” Harrington said. “I hope there are 100 million people watching me play and checking me out. It’s good for the game. Yeah, it takes a certain individual to act upon it, but we do need those individuals.”

Graeme McDowell, eight under par and four shots off the lead held by Martin Kaymer, was not quite so understanding or generous about this week’s amateur rules official. “Too much time on his hands,” he said. “TV viewers are important to us, and high-definition and 3D and slow-mo add to the experience of watching golf on TV. But we are under scrutiny to the nth degree. And 95 percent of the field don’t have to deal with that, only the five percent that are on TV. We need to take a serious look at the Rules of Golf and make sure that, yeah, they are protecting people, but we need to have a look at some of these fiddly little pernickety stupid little rules. It’s just not great for the game. Common sense has got to take over trial by TV and all this stuff.”

McDowell was almost the victim of another whistle-blower after the first round, when he had to wait around to view a video of his ball on the 18th green before he was set free. His near misdemeanor was another case of an oscillating ball on the green. He believes it is time to review this rule, too. “Marking and remarking a golf ball is not a scientific maneuver,” he said. “It’s very difficult to get that ball back on the right spot, you know, because you just slide the marker and you’re picking it up and putting it back and sliding it back out. Your fingers are very close to the ball all the time. I don’t think a player should be penalized for trying to take his marker out of the way and glancing his ball. It’s a gray area.”

If Kaymer continues his fine form through the weekend, a top seven finish will propel him above Tiger Woods to No. 2 in the Official World Golf Ranking. “If I get to No. 2, I want to get to No. 1,” he said. “If I get really close to Lee [Westwood], of course I want to catch him.” Phil Mickelson needs a victory to overtake Woods, but that looks unlikely from three under par.

Such was the miniscule detail of Harrington’s dilemma: his playing partner Kaymer didn’t notice a thing. “I don’t even know which putt it was,” he said. “Padraig is one of the fairest persons on tour. I cannot believe he did anything on purpose.”

As is so often the case these days, the never-shy Poulter offered via Twitter the final and eloquent word on Harrington’s bad luck: “The rules of golf are complete bollocks and are stuck back in 1932.”

Tell us what you think: Should TV viewers be allowed to call in violations? Is disqualification too harsh when a player signs a card he believes to be correct? Is the increased scrutiny unfair to the high-profile players, who get the majority of TV time?