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Viewer call-ins a 'necessary evil' for tournament golf

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PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – If you're reading this, you're likely a golf fan and if you're a golf fan, you likely roll your eyes anytime a broadcaster states that a player's score is being reviewed because some guy in Saskatoon is positive he saw a ball move three-fifths of a millimeter on his television screen before it was struck. He even DVR'd it.

On golf's hierarchy of villains, the call-in viewer ranks somewhere between the slow-play subscriber who marks his 2-footer for triple bogey and the blockhead who yells, 'MASHED POTATOES!' at the top of his lungs whenever a player tees off.

And yet, it seems like it's happening now more than ever, with Tiger Woods' ruling at the Masters serving as the tipping point. Though that call-in was softened because it was initiated by a former PGA Tour rules official, amateur rules gurus around the world will often let their fingers do the walking. Sometimes all it takes is one phone call to reach out and touch someone – and change their score.

Consider it the NFL-ification of golf. Not that viewers can call in for misdeeds on the gridiron but soon we’ll be expecting Ed Hochuli to emerge from underneath a black cloth covering a replay booth, biceps flaring, to announce on the 18th green, 'Upon further review...'

Of the myriad questions surrounding the armchair quarterback's ability to affect a professional golf tournament – from morality issues (“Nobody out here is trying to cheat,” says Rickie Fowler) to equality concerns (“You can’t have everybody on TV, so not everybody gets the same treatment,” contends Sergio Garcia) – one query remains dominant above all others.

How in the world do people keep getting these phone numbers?!?!

“You know,” says Mark Russell, the PGA Tour’s senior vice president of rules and competition, with a confounded shake of his head, “they must be with the CIA or something to figure out how to get our number.”

“I don’t know who these people are calling or who they’re getting ahold of that’s actually listening to them,” Ryan Moore says. “But they obviously get ahold of the right person somehow. That’s the amazing thing.”

That’s actually the easy part. It is entirely more difficult to catch a professional golfer committing a rules infraction from the cozy confines of one’s own couch. Even with the tools of a high-definition television that includes a remote control, which can zoom in and slow down the action, viewers are hard-pressed to find guilty parties on the screen. The role of a golfer is to know the rules and abide by them, characteristics that have long been engrained into the minds of every player at the professional level.

It happens, though. A mistake here, a brain cramp there. More and more violations being caught by the discerning eye of the viewer. And it’s happened at such a high rate over the past few years that it can even be called an epidemic.

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There was no absolute decision. No rule decreed by law of commissioner which stated that beginning on a certain day, television viewers were allowed to call in violations.

“It probably started when televised golf started,” Russell surmises. “I can always remember someone calling in and asking a question. ‘Hey, I thought I saw somebody do this; is that not against the rules?’ If it’s valid, we’ll check it out. To me, it’s just the hazard of playing televised golf.”

If there is a landmark case in this issue, it occurred during the 1987 Andy Williams Open. After his drive on Torrey Pines’ 14th hole landed underneath a tree, Craig Stadler decided his best option would be to punch out from his knees. Not wanting to dirty his trousers, Stadler placed a towel on the ground. Later he would famously explain, “I didn’t want to finish the round looking like a gardener.”


Video: Call-ins good for the game?


Instead, he finished the third round looking like a contender. Easily in the mix for the title, it wasn’t until the next day’s final round when a television viewer from Iowa called the course to point out that Stadler should have been penalized two strokes for “building a stance.”

Officials allowed him to complete the round – he would have finished in a share of second place – then informed Stadler that because he didn’t assess the penalty to himself, he had signed an incorrect scorecard on Saturday, resulting in disqualification.

“I was only seven at the time,” recalls his son Kevin, now a PGA Tour member, “but I remember afterward he was one pissed off dude.”

Both then and now, the rallying cry has sounded about the uniqueness of this situation. In no other sport can a viewer notice a broken rule, then dial up the venue and affect the final result.

“It’s not like we can sit home and call in and say if it’s a ball or a strike or if a guy was out or safe,” Fowler contends.

“If the NBA allowed that, they’d never finish a game,” says Charles Howell III. “Michael Jordan would still be playing.”

The answer from the game’s rules caretakers and decision makers is that golf is different. There are no judgment calls. Rules are black and white. And they need to be adhered to at all times.

Even if that means listening to someone who is watching on television thousands of miles from the event.

“The question is: Did you or did you not commit a violation?” Russell explains. “It doesn’t matter how you found out about it. You know, 99.99 percent of the call-ins are totally bogus. But if someone calls in with something that’s got some valid elements to it, we’ll take a look at it.”

Russell, who first began serving as a PGA Tour rules official in 1980, says there are days when he won’t receive a single call about a potential infraction. Other days, he may receive up to a half-dozen.

He is quick to clarify that in many situations viewers are actually doing a service to a player who commits a violation. If it’s found before he signs his scorecard, he can be saved from disqualification.

“It’s the [rules] committee’s obligation to be aware of a possible rules infraction,” Russell says. “If somebody tells you something, you have to investigate.”

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If a tree falls in the forest, does it make a sound? If a professional golfer commits a violation that isn’t captured on camera, does he get penalized?

These are the philosophical conundrums that have puzzled people for years. The latter question has been asked in PGA Tour locker rooms for a few decades, with players wondering whether those being televised more frequently are subject to an unfair disadvantage.

Take the case of Woods at the Masters, which has already eclipsed Stadler’s scenario as the game’s most celebrated call-in. On the 15th hole Friday, Woods took a drop that was closer to two yards behind the original spot than the acceptable “as near as possible.” According to reports, former rules official David Eger called an on-site official who relayed the information to Rules Committee chairman Fred Ridley.

The violation wasn’t caught by Woods, his caddie, playing partners, officials, volunteers or spectators who were watching live. And so it begs the question: If a less popular player had committed the same infraction earlier that day prior to television coverage, would it ever have come to light?

“If he wasn’t on TV, then we don’t have any of that,” Howell deduces. “The guys on TV are under extra scrutiny, if you will, than the guys who aren’t on TV. So in that sense, if I play early and there are no cameras out there, I’m playing under a different set of rules than someone playing late when there are cameras.”

“It’ll only be certain guys who are on camera,” Fowler agrees. “Certain guys are going to be under 24-hour surveillance, while other guys are going to be out there and no one ever sees what’s going on.”

That’s not to suggest those away from the intruding glare of the camera lens are rewarding themselves with foot wedges during their rounds. This is a fairness issue. When some players are televised and others aren’t, it can be contended that the playing field is no longer level.

“If you’re watching a football match – or a soccer match, whatever you want to call it – there’s only one match and there are cameras showing it,” Garcia explains. “Here, you can’t show everyone. Someone can do something that would not be on camera and nothing happens. Then someone else, because he’s on TV, people will see it and call it in.”

Of course, there’s an easy answer to leveling that playing field that would involve a Herculian implementation. Multiple cameras on each hole that would capture and record video of every single shot.

Upside? It eliminates the unfair disadvantage for those on television. Downside? Golf would become the sporting equivalent of managerial accounting.

File that idea under: Careful What You Wish For.

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Dave Andrews is one of “those guys.” That’s right – he once got a PGA Tour player disqualified from a tournament.

Two years ago, the New Hampshire native was on vacation in Florida, watching the season-opening Hyundai Tournament of Champions on television with two of his golfing buddies. When they saw Camilo Villegas chip up a slope to the 15th green, only to swat away some loose grass with his wedge as the ball rolled back toward his feet, it raised a red flag.

One buddy said he thought it was a violation. The other buddy looked it up on the USGA website.

What he found was Rule 23-1, which states: 'When a ball is in motion, a loose impediment that might influence the movement of the ball must not be removed.'

Andrews, a published author whose novel “Pops and Sunshine” is partially about golf, took to social media. He sent an email and a tweet to the PGA Tour and another tweet to Golf Channel. The next day, Villegas was disqualified for signing an incorrect scorecard.

“Nobody was more stunned than I was,” he recalls. “We weren’t trying to get him disqualified. We were trying to get a clarification of why he didn’t break the rule.”

Therein lies the modus operandi for many viewers. The end goal isn’t to have a player penalized. It’s to receive an interpretation of the rule for their own edification.

“I certainly didn’t feel empowered by calling it in,” Andrews says. “I felt sorry for the player in that situation. He wasn’t trying to cheat or take advantage of a situation. Obviously he’s not alone in terms of PGA Tour players who don’t understand the rules.

“I felt sorry for him that he got disqualified, but I wasn’t trying to have an influence on the tournament.”

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Padraig Harrington is hurriedly walking through a parking lot on his way to a post-round practice session when he’s asked his thoughts on television viewers calling in violations. He stops and turns. Memories come rushing through his mind.

“They changed the rule because of me,” he reminds the questioner.

Indeed they did. It was in the opening round of the 2011 Abu Dhabi Golf Championship when Harrington unknowingly committed a violation that was captured by television cameras. A viewer emailed the European Tour and since he’d already signed his scorecard, Harrington was disqualified.

“As I was picking up my marker,” he explains, “I was looking at the hole and I nudged my ball, which is obviously no penalty, because I was picking up my marker. When I looked down to see if my ball had moved, the markings on my golf ball were in the same position as when I had put it down, so I assumed that my ball had rocked and hadn’t moved.

“But on TV, it seemed that my golf ball had moved a dimple and a half. I wouldn’t have been able to see that with my eye. So that’s what they changed in hindsight.”

Less than three months later, the USGA and R&A convened to announce a joint revision to the rules. Officially, it’s called Decision 33-7/4.5. Casually, though, it’s simply referred to as the Padraig Rule.

The revision states: “If the committee is satisfied that the competitor could not reasonably have known or discovered the facts resulting in his breach of the rules, it would be justified under Rule 33-7 in waiving the disqualification penalty prescribed by Rule 6-6d. The penalty stroke(s) associated with the breach would, however, be applied to the hole where the breach occurred.”

In layman’s terms, this means that if there is no possible way for a player to see a violation, but it’s caught by television cameras, the punishment will not result in disqualification for signing an incorrect scorecard.

“In my case, if my ball had moved half a roll and I could have looked down and seen that my markings had moved but I didn’t bother, well, then this rule wouldn’t save me,” Harrington says. “That rule is only if it would be impossible for the player to see it happen, but the TV can show it. So it wouldn’t have been possible to see the ball move. The dimple with the markings suggests even if I’d been looking at it, I wouldn’t have been able to tell that it had moved out of position, because it happened too quickly. But if it moved half a ball and I just wasn’t paying attention, the TV ain’t going to save me. That rule is very, very, very specific and it can’t be used in a general term.”

Despite being disqualified from that event, Harrington remains among the few professionals who believe that call-ins should continue to be legal.

“That was an unfortunate incident, but the rules are far bigger than any individual,” he continues. “Of course people should ring in. Then the next thing you know, we’ll say if a spectator sees something on the course, he shouldn’t say it. Come on, that’s part of the game. You stick by the rules. It doesn’t matter where it’s coming from – whether it’s a referee, a playing partner, yourself, the TV. The rules are the rules. You stick by them.”

At this, Harrington becomes flustered, even frustrated that such a debate is gaining traction.

“You play by the rules,” he states firmly. “That’s it. You get some good breaks and you get some horrible breaks because of the rules. That’s just part of the game.”

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Much as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, the ability of television viewers to phone in violations can be viewed in both positive and negative context. Players from Stadler to Woods own firsthand knowledge of the latter, but others understand that a phone call may have been the difference between disqualification and simply adding a penalty to the scorecard.

A few years back, there was a forgettable golfer on the PGA Tour named David Lutterus. So forgettable, in fact, that when Russell tries to remember his name, he calls him “Ludicrous.”

“I can remember in Greensboro, he had a call-in on a rules situation and we’re talking to him after the third round,” Russell says. “He was really bummed out. And we said, ‘You’re going to have to add two to your score for that.’ He goes, ‘You mean I’m not disqualified?’ ‘Well, no. It’s just a two-stroke penalty.’ He was ecstatic. He thought we were going to disqualify him from the competition.”

If – or perhaps when, based on the current climate – the PGA Tour contingent pushes aside anchored putting and slow play from the agenda, its players might argue for a weekly local rule which disallows television viewers affecting their results.

They will likely be told the story of Lutterus and others like him, examples of how call-ins can make a positive impact. These stories may also include that of Woods at the Masters.

Think about it: If a viewer never calls in that violation, Augusta National officials never review it. If they don’t review it, then it’s not their fault that Woods didn’t assess himself the penalty. Instead, the blame is on him. It’s an incorrect scorecard and the result is disqualification.

Sure, it’s based on a few hypotheticals, but Woods’ inclusion in the Masters during that weekend may very well have been thanks to a viewer phone call.

Think of it from the other way around: If viewer call-ins were disallowed, that wouldn’t negate the opinions of those who believed they witnessed a violation. Instead, it may simply label such players as cheaters, the swiftness of social media spreading those thoughts like wildfire. And it’s a very real concern. Just last week, before he was exonerated of any wrongdoing after a call-in, Garcia maintained, “If people are going to think I’m a cheater, I’d rather get a two-stroke penalty and move on than not get a two-stroke penalty and people think I’m cheating.”

Just because the majority of players and fans alike disagree with viewers affecting tournaments, don’t expect the rule to change anytime soon. Such practice might be evil, but it’s a necessary evil.

“They don’t like it at all, but I don’t know how you’re going to be able to do away with it,” Russell explains. “I think it would be difficult to do that if you do in fact know something happened and you’re made aware of it.”

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