PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – It was after 8 p.m. ET on Saturday when Mark Russell was settling in for dinner; it had been a long day and he would have preferred to put everything behind him when his cell phone rang.
Russell, the PGA Tour’s vice president of rules and competition, had just overseen a ruling that cost Justin Rose two strokes and took nearly 40 minutes, but the reporter wanted to know why Russell and the rules committee hadn’t considered using a new decision regarding the use of “sophisticated technology” as a mitigating factor in the Englishman’s situation.
“It's not as though he didn't see anything and then it came up because of high-definition television,” said Russell, one of the game’s most even-handed and well-respected officials. “He saw something and backed off, that's why the high-definition rule didn't apply.”
Fifteen hours later Rose was informed that the two-stroke penalty he’d received for violating Rule 18-2b, one shot for the ball moving at address and one for not replacing his ball after it had moved, had been rescinded.
And baseball fans think Major League Baseball’s instant replay process is deliberate.
Russell & Co. revisited the issue on Sunday when they arrived at TPC Sawgrass at 7:30 a.m., and even reached out to golf’s governing bodies – the Royal & Ancient and U.S. Golf Association – at 10 a.m. for more clarification.
After 45 minutes of deliberations, the decision was made to rescind the ruling under the new high-definition decision (18-4), which reads, “The ball will not be deemed to have moved if that movement was not reasonably discernible to the naked eye at the time.”
At about the same time Russell was settling in for dinner with his team of rules officials on Saturday, Rose discovered an article explaining the new decision, which was adopted last year by the R&A and USGA.
“Overnight I read an article that explained the (high-definition) rule and I kind of thought it applied to my case,” Rose said. “I didn’t see how my case was any different than what I read.”
After further review, Russell and some of the game’s greatest rules minds agreed. That it took them more than 12 hours to come to that conclusion is also understandable.
Rose’s ruling was the first time Tour officials, who asked for the amended decision regarding “sophisticated technology,” used the new loophole and it will become the litmus test for similar situations in the future.
Most players who learned of the ruling on Sunday at The Players were relieved. After years of curious and sometime confounding rulings that were only visible in the slow-motion, high-definition landscape, a common sense approach is refreshing.
“If you don’t see it move and your playing partner doesn’t see it move, you go with what you see and what you can live with,” Ryan Palmer said. “I don’t see why you should get screwed by TV. You hope the player has enough integrity to call himself if it really moved.”
In the moment, players have for eons policed themselves. On Saturday at The Players, for example, Rose called in Sergio Garcia, who was paired with the Englishman, and they both watched the replay on the super-sized television adjacent the 18th green and determined the ball hadn’t moved.
For Tour types, this isn’t about a perceived competitive advantage; it’s about the realities of a game that is played outside and under extreme conditions.
“There are times you can’t see everything,” Jimmy Walker said. “What if you blinked when that happened? That’s why they enacted the rule.”
In a twist of cosmic irony, one of the few players who didn’t seem to have a problem with video reviews was Brian Davis, who once lost a playoff at the RBC Heritage as a result of a ruling that likely would have fallen under the new decision.
On the first playoff hole in 2010 at Harbour Town, Davis’ approach to the 18th hole finished on the beach left of the green and while he was hitting his third shot something wasn’t quite right.
“I didn’t see (a blade of beach grass) move because I was over the top of the ball, but when you saw it on replay from another angle you could see it brush up and down,” Davis recalled.
After a video review – using, by definition, “sophisticated technology” – Davis was assessed a penalty and lost the playoff, perhaps the most glaring example of what the rules-makers were trying to avoid with the new high-definition decision.
Yet on Sunday, Davis largely dismissed the need for the new decision.
“As long as we get the right call that’s the important thing,” he said. “They need high-definition (reviews) to make the right call, but they also need common sense to make the right decision.”
Which brings us back to Russell. Taken to the logical extreme, one could argue that under the new decision there is no reason to review any possible infractions. If a player and those who are paired with him feel there was no violation that means they didn’t see anything, so why take it to review?
And where is the line to be drawn on what is considered “sophisticated technology?” Is a basic DVR acceptable but 1080p too techie?
“If it's discernible to the player that it wasn't discernible to the naked eye, I mean, we determined that that's the only way we would have known is through sophisticated technology,” Russell said.
Rose may have been the first player spared a penalty by the new decision but he won’t be the last. Nor will Russell be the last rules official to lose sleep trying to make sense of it all.