By overturning Justin Rose penalty, PGA Tour sets precedent on video evidence of rules violations

Justin Rose and Sergio Garcia on Saturday at the Players Championship. In a rules incident on the 18th hole, neither Rose nor Garcia thought Rose's ball moved after looking at a video replay.
AP Photo

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — When is a two-shot penalty not a two-shot penalty?

When the PGA Tour says it is. And then says it isn’t.

Confused? You should be.

The third-biggest news coming out of The Players (behind Martin Kaymer’s stunning return to form and Jordan Spieth’s teasing potential) was The Justin Rose Affair.

In case you missed it, the reigning United States Open champion was slapped with a two-shot penalty after Saturday’s round because his ball was deemed to have moved before he played a chip shot to the 18th green. Sunday morning, citing a 2014 change to the Rules of Golf, the PGA Tour dismissed Rose’s two-shot penalty and restored his original score. The new rule says that if the movement can’t be detected by the naked eye and can only be seen via “sophisticated technology,” there is no penalty to the player because he could not have known of the violation.

Padraig Harrington was disqualified in Abu Dhabi in 2011 when his ball moved as he brushed sand off the green and he wasn’t aware of it. Only later was the violation revealed when camera close-ups revealed it. Tiger Woods was another high-profile victim at last year’s BMW Championship when he addressed his ball in a pile of brush and magnified close-ups showed his ball moved even though he was adamant that it hadn’t. Woods, whose every move in his high-profile career has been televised, suggested that rule needed changing and two months later, it was.

The change led to Rose making history as the only player in history to pick up two shots before he teed off.

“I was willing to accept the way things played out last night,” Rose said. “Under 50-times magnification, you could argue there was a tiny bit of a roll towards the toe. I’m talking a hair or a millimeter or a quarter dimple. The golf ball looked like a LEGO ball, it was so magnified.

“I didn’t know this new rule was in place and it wasn’t really read to me last night, either. I didn’t think anything more of it, right, because what’s done is done.”

Then he got the news at the Stadium Course before his round that those two strokes were restored. He teed off, shot 33 on the front nine and played his way up to third place briefly before making three bogeys in a row on the back nine. He shot 69 and finished T4, three shots behind winner Martin Kaymer.

The affair was a landmark event. It was the first time Rule 18-4 was used. There were questions why it wasn’t immediately applied Saturday night and why it took until Sunday morning until it was applied. Rules official Mark Russell was vague on certain details regarding those issues but he was confident that in the final analysis that the officials got it right. I don’t disagree.

Who suggested that maybe the original ruling needed a second look and why wasn’t Rule 18-4 used right away? That information was never supplied by Russell, either. But even Rose admitted that later Saturday night, after he had time to think about it, he wondered about it.

“I was willing to accept everything that happened and the error I made, which was not calling a rules official, which would have protected me, a two-shot penalty versus a one-shot penalty,” Rose said. “That’s the learning curve that I take out of it. I stumbled across some things on Twitter and it came up… a light bulb went on and I kind of scratched my head and thought, Well, that’s exactly how it happened on 18. It felt very relevant to my case.”

Here’s what happened: Rose was just over the 18th green in two in Saturday’s third round. He addressed his ball in the thatchy rough and then suddenly stepped away. Had his ball moved while he addressed it and pressed his wedge into the spongy grass? He wasn’t sure. Rose knew his ball had wobbled but didn’t think it changed position.

A close-up of his setup was replayed on the giant leaderboard screen by the 18th green so Rose and Sergio Garcia studied it closely. They agreed the ball didn’t move, so Rose played on and got up and down for par. He thought.

Upon further review, PGA Tour officials met with Rose and watched more replays. Finally, on a shot from a camera tower with a high-definition camera that was magnified more than 50 times, rules officials determined that Rose’s ball moved ever so slightly, about two dimples’ worth.

That cost Rose a one-shot penalty for causing the ball to move and a second shot because he failed to replace it to its original position.

That wasn’t the end of the story. Upon further-further review, Tour officials decided that Rule 18-4, a new rule adopted only this year, was in play. It was a rule that the PGA Tour asked for to help protect players from penalties in situations when a player’s ball changed positions and he has no way to know it.

The bottom line of this case is that it was a good test case for rules officials to get a handle on the new rule. After an initial bobble, they corrected the ruling. Of course, all future rulings are going to be based on the definition of exactly what is “sophisticated technology” and what can be seen by the naked eye. It’s still going to be a judgment call, as it’s always been in the past. If there was a question about a player’s golf ball moving, that player and his playing partners judged among themselves whether the ball was deemed to have moved. In a case like this, cameras were involved.

“I was certainly surprised that it was overturned,” Rose said. “Very rarely is that ever the case. I was getting a lot of reaction and people tweeting at me. There was a lot of empathy on my side and clearly, that’s why this new rule is in place, so that players are protected when it’s ambiguous what happened.

“So it’s just been very interesting to be on the wrong side of a ruling and then on the right side of a ruling within 12 or 15 hours.”

Rulings aren’t often reversed in any sport, certainly not in golf. Whether you agree with the outcome or not — some purists will surely argue that if the ball moved an inch or a micro-hair, it still moved and should be a penalty — you should recognize that history of a sort was just made.

There won’t be many more situations like Rose’s in televised professional golf. But there will be another, sooner or later. Make a note, legal precedent has been set.

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