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The Eyes Should Have It

First, it was Camilo Villegas in Hawaii. Then it was Padraig Harrington in Abu Dhabi. Who’s next?

Villegas got the new PGA Tour season off to a less-than-auspicious start on Maui when he swiped a tuft of grass in frustration while a misplayed chip shot was rolling back to his feet on the 15th hole during the opening round of the Hyundai Tournament of Champions.

Villegas didn’t know that he’d broken a rule by swiping at the sod while the ball was in motion and neither did anyone else in his group. Someone watching in Florida thought there might have been a violation and began making phone calls. By the time he reached someone in Hawaii, Villegas had signed his scorecard. Since he was – correctly – assessed a two-stroke penalty, he had signed for an incorrect and lower score which meant he was disqualified.

Padraig Harrington
Padraig Harrington, on his way to being disqualified at the Abu Dhabi Championship. (Getty Images)

Two weeks later, Harrington, on his way to a blazing 7-under-par 65 in the first round at Abu Dhabi, accidentally brushed his ball with his finger while replacing it on the seventh green. This time it was an e-mail from a fan. Again a look at the video. Although this time it wasn’t nearly as clearcut since it took a microscopic look in HD to be certain that Harrington’s ball had moved forward a fraction of an inch, the final result was the same.

Another two-stroke penalty and – because the e-mail came after Harrington had finished his round – another DQ for signing for an incorrect score.

It isn’t as if this is a new phenomenon in golf. Everyone remembers ‘towel-gate,’ the infamous Craig Stadler incident in San Diego 24 years ago when Stadler hit a shot from his knees on the 14th hole during the third round and used a towel to keep his pants dry. When a rules-geek called in the next day to point out that Stadler had technically been ‘building a stance,’ with the towel he was disqualified after finishing second in the tournament.

And so, predictably, in the wake of ‘swipe-gate,’ and ‘brush-gate,’ came calls to make it impossible for rules geeks to call in and get players disqualified. Soon after, PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem weighed in, saying he would ask the U.S. Golf Association to look at changing the rule on incorrect scorecards.

That’s probably a good idea, changing the wording to read, ‘if a player KNOWINGLY,’ signs for an incorrect (and lower) score he is disqualified.’

With all due respect to the commissioner, there’s a much easier way to clean this up without resorting to changing the rules of the sport, which can be a complicated and lengthy process. The scorecard issue can be dealt with and so can the TV rules geeks very easily. So easily, in fact, that it can be fixed by the time the players tee it up in Phoenix on Thursday: put a rules official in the TV truck or the TV tower throughout every telecast of every tournament.

There’s plenty of past precedent for such a move. The USGA/'>USGA has had a rules official – first Frank Hannigan and then David Fay – in the TV tower during the U.S. Open for years now. Both Hannigan and Fay were there to explain rules questions to the TV audience but also had the ability to contact rules officials on the golf course if they spotted something that was a potential problem.

Of course the system wasn’t perfect because the two men also had TV responsibilities. In 1994, during the final round of the U.S. Open at Oakmont, Hannigan was too busy explaining to the TV audience that Ernie Els was not entitled to a drop on the first hole to have time to grab his USGA walkie-talkie and contact Trey Holland to tell him he was making a mistake by giving Els a drop. By then, Hannigan was an ABC employee so his first priority had to be the TV audience.

For years now, CBS has employed Tom Loss, another former USGA rules official, to sit in the truck to explain rules issues to its on-air talent during a telecast. At times in the past, Loss has contacted rules officials to let them know something was amiss. Again though, having a TV employee in the truck – no matter how well he knows the rules – isn’t enough as was evident at last year’s PGA Championship during ‘Dustin-gate.’

Last week in San Diego, two rules officials, Mark Russell and Steve Carman, went to the truck during the last few holes on Sunday to monitor the telecast. With fewer players on the golf course late on Sunday, they were freed up from on-course duties to do this. It turned out to be a good thing because a few geeks called in saying they believed Bubba Watson had brushed his ball taking practice swings before his critical pitch shot on the 17th hole. Russell looked closely at several replays and saw clearly that Watson hadn’t touched the ball.

“I might advise Bubba to stand a bit farther from the ball in the future,” he joked on Monday. “But he did absolutely nothing wrong on Sunday.”

The only reason the Tour may not make this move is – you guessed it – money. The Tour normally sends six or seven rules officials to a one golf course tournament, depending on the layout of the course. Taking one off the course at the height of play Thursday or Friday would be difficult. While it’s nice to monitor play on Sunday down the stretch, it’s not enough. Both of this year’s DQs happened on Thursday.

The Tour needs to send an extra rules official to each site and have that person monitor every telecast every day of the tournament. If that official sees something – anything – he can contact the officials on the golf course. In some cases, it might prevent a player from breaking a rule (as should have happened in ‘Dustin-gate,’ with a rules official right there); in others he will at least tell someone they need to let a player know he broke a rule before he signs his scorecard.

The Tour will argue this is an un-needed expense because incidents like ‘swipe-gate,’ and ‘brush-gate,’ happen so rarely. Really? Two of them occurred in January. That’s two more than should happen in a year. The Tour needs to stop promoting the FedEx Cup for a few minutes and do something for, as the saying goes, the good of the game.