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Even with simpler rules, golf remains sports' ultimate democracy

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SAN DIEGO – Civil lawsuits. Petitions. Fans walking away from the game.

Golf has never seemed so gentle.

In the wake of what many pundits are dubbing the worst non-call in the history of the National Football League during the NFC Championship between the New Orleans Saints and Los Angeles Rams, the blowback, which includes a lawsuit seeking to force the NFL to grant New Orleans a “do-over,” reinforces golf’s status as sports' undisputed – and undefeated – democracy.

In golf, there are no competitive guarantees. You are what your record says you are, and golf tournaments are never decided by what an official may or may not have seen.

Some have dismissed the outcome of the NFC Championship. They point out, correctly, that penalties are regularly overlooked or incorrectly applied. That doesn’t happen in golf.

Dustin Johnson’s miscue in a bunker that didn’t look anything like a bunker at the 2010 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits may have offended the senses, but he grounded his club, took his penalty and lost the championship. This wasn’t a judgement call; it was simply the correct application of the rules.

Six years later, Johnson again ran afoul of the rules – at least, as the rules were defined at the time – and was penalized when his ball moved on the fifth green during the final round of the U.S. Open at Oakmont. Perhaps DJ didn’t deserve the penalty, but the issue turned out to be a non-story when he won by three strokes.

Full-field tee times from the Farmers Insurance Open

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Unlike nearly every other sport, from football to tennis, judgement calls – or in the Saints’ case, non-calls – don’t have a place in golf.

“That’s true. With golf we’ve all seen the issues where it gets back to the player and the player ultimately makes the call and, in a way, that’s what makes golf great,” Charles Howell III said. “It’s self-policing.”

This is worth pointing out because as the Rules of Golf continue to evolve and simplify, that unique element of the sport might be in jeopardy.

In recent years, the rulemakers have introduced the concept of intent, and this year’s overhaul of the rules has created some potentially curious situations.

“I spoke to one of the USGA guys today about the rule regarding a caddie or a person lining up a player before they hit a shot,” Rory McIlroy said on Wednesday at the Farmers Insurance Open.

Under the new rules, a “caddie can no longer align a player while he’s taking his stance for any stroke.” The scenario that McIlroy explained was if he were playing a shot from the woods and asked his caddie for advice.

“I don't step away from that ball and I step into it and hit it, he's not lining me up, but if I don't walk away from that ball and step back in, that's a penalty,” McIlroy said. “There's no intent for (his caddie) to line me up.”

Another player described the rule regarding putters and the ban on anchoring. On windy days, it’s difficult to keep a long putter from brushing against a player’s shirt or even their chest. Under the intent concept, however, a player could simply explain away the incident as accidental contact.

Integrity has always been a cornerstone of golf and there’s no reason to think that will change, but there are certainly loopholes in the rules that could prompt some to question what’s in a player’s heart.

An example of this will surely come up this week at Torrey Pines, where the Poa annua greens can become notoriously bumpy late in the day. Under the rule changes, a player is allowed to repair spike marks and any other damage on the putting green caused by a person, animal or maintenance practices.

“I don't think people are going to make this trail all the way to the hole, but if there is a heel print or there's something in your line or a little imperfection that has been man made, you know it's well within your rights now to tap it down,” McIlroy said. “Just as long as people don't take advantage of it. But I don't think there's a problem with integrity on this tour, I think everyone's pretty by the book.”

McIlroy did acknowledge that there are now gray areas when it comes to some of the rule changes and that it will likely take some time for both players and officials to sort through what will be a few awkward moments.

But like most players McIlroy also explained that the need to include intent in the application of the rules was a key step, even if it might open the door to the occasional questionable call.

“I think intent matters. Golf’s rules have never been easy. I can definitely see the ‘clouding up’ issue but at the same time I can also see where it’s going to be better because the player is still going to be responsible,” Howell said.

As legal challenges mount and fans grouse about Sunday’s non-call in the Saints-Rams game, one thing is certain – golf will continue to be sports' ultimate democracy, regardless of how the rules have changed.