Rules aren’t made to be broken

June 1, 2017

[Michael Bamberger’s column appears in the June 2017 issue of GOLF Magazine.]

Just like hurricanes, these let’s go-to-the-videotape rules debacles get names. Hurricane Tiger, at Augusta, in 2013. Hurricane DJ, last year at Oakmont. Hurricane Lexi, in April at Mission Hills. After each of these storms, the social-media chorus got loud, and the mood of the choir was obvious: mad as hell/not gonna take it anymore.

Each complaint generally falls into one of five categories.

No. 1. Video should be used in rules disputes almost never.
No. 2. Magnified video should never be used at all.
No. 3. The rules officials at the PGA Tour/USGA/LPGA should be ashamed of themselves for hijacking these events.
No. 4. Penalties should not be assigned after players sign their scorecards.
No. 5. TV viewers at home (and who are these people anyhow?) should not be permitted to influence the outcome of a golf tournament, as it is unfair to the players who get more TV time, and also because it’s weird.

The Lexi Thompson debacle at the ANA Inspirational was a perfect storm. Petty rules enforcement? Check. Needed a zoom lens to see it? Check. Overwhelmed the event? Check. Late penalty? Check. Initiated by a TV viewer? Check.

Category No. 5 (TV viewer at home) sets Woods on edge. He is, with a 10,000-stroke lead, the golfer who has spent the most time on TV. While Thompson was playing the final round of the old Dinah Shore event on April 2, Tiger tweeted: “Viewers at home should not be officials wearing stripes. Let’s go @Lexi, win this thing anyway.”

Here’s an easy solution to the various problems outlined here: Play by the rules. Had Thompson marked her ball correctly in the first place, there would never have been an issue.

Really, it’s a world-gone-soft that turned Thompson into a victim here. The rule that governs marking a ball on a green could not be more straightforward: Mark, and return the ball to where it was. She didn’t do that.

Like Woods, I used to think that the use of videotape, and the whole call-in thing, was strange. But 20 years ago, Davis Love III helped me understand, with impeccable logic, why it makes sense: A player should want his or her scorecard to be as accurate as possible, and more scrutiny will only help make a player achieve that goal. Love’s worldview shows an elemental understanding of the game that defines his life. In other sports—in football, in basketball, in baseball, in hockey—trying to get away with something is part of the game. Golf is the complete opposite.

Also, what kind of champion would you have if broadcast TV showed a winner hoisting a trophy, and YouTube showed, for example, that same golfer carrying 15 clubs?

Maybe golf is not meant for these times. Modern society is casual, and golf requires precision. If you play a ball that’s a half-inch out of bounds, golf doesn’t give you a warning. In tournament golf, it gives the death penalty. Disqualification.

Golf-on-TV, as performed by the game’s high priests and priestesses, must be played at the highest possible standard. That’s the ultimate way for them to honor the game. You and I, in our match-play $5 Nassaus, enjoy a different game. If we decide to amend the lost-ball rule to “just drop it by that bush and add a shot,” that’s up to us. Serious competitive golf requires complete fidelity to the official rulebook. Dustin Johnson could have said at Oakmont, “Something moved that ball. I don’t think it was me, but on the chance that it was, I’m taking the shot.” Many of his forebears and fellow tourists have said exactly that. One did that week.

The rules are complicated, imperfect and constantly evolving, but they are rooted in logic. Thompson got her four shots on Sunday for her Saturday violation because the competition was not over. She was playing a 72-hole event. Her responsibility, before signing that Saturday scorecard and attesting to her score, was to review the round and make sure everything she did was within the rules. If you always mark correctly, you will never have a problem related to marking. A half-inch on a green can change your world. (I’m not implying a thing about Thompson’s motivation.) When we’re on the green, we say, “Move it from that old pitch mark you’re in.” Tournament golf would fall apart if played that loosely.

When the new rulebook comes out in 2019, there will almost surely be expanded language by which players will not be penalized for inadvertent rules lapses about which they could not know, or when they have done everything in their power to abide by the rules. But in the Thompson episode, it would have changed nothing.

The rulebook doesn’t exist, as some say, to “help” or “guide” or “protect” a player. The rulebook exists to define the terms of the competition. Without it, and without strict adherence to it, a golfer is just another sketchy character jumping a subway turnstile while the security camera dangles by its wires.