USGA, R&A enact new rule aimed at protecting players from video review

Memo to golf fans who’ve been busy calling in suspected rules violations: the impact of your actions has been under review.  

As a result, golf has new rules meant to curtail the use of video evidence.    

In a joint move Tuesday morning, the USGA and R&A announced Decision 34-3/10, which contains two standards aimed at protecting players from being penalized for infractions that “could not reasonably have been seen with the naked eye.”

The decision, which goes into effect immediately, does not eliminate video evidence or viewer call-ins altogether. But it attempts to minimize rules kerfuffles like the kind that engulfed Lexi Thompson during the final round of this year’s ANA Inspiration, where the American star was belatedly slapped with a four-stroke penalty after a TV viewer alerted LPGA officials to an infraction that occurred the previous day.

Under the new standards, a tournament committee could opt to let certain hard-to-detect infractions slide (like a player dislodging grains of sand during a backswing in a bunker, or taking an improper drop) even in the face of video evidence, so long as the player is deemed to have done what could reasonably have been expected to abide by the rules.  

“As technology has continued to improve, it has enhanced the viewing experience for fans but it has also raised the possibility of uncomfortable scenarios where the TV cameras see something but maybe the naked eye cannot,” Thomas Pagel, senior director for Rules of Golf and Amateur Status for the USGA, said in an interview. “Addressing that issue immediately is good for the game.”

Pagel emphasized that the decision did not result from any single incident or set of incidents but rather from the governing bodies’ ongoing effort to keep the Rules apace with modern times.  

For many fans, however, Tuesday’s announcement will likely read like a referendum on the notoriously awkward rulings that have marred recent major championships. Take, for instance, the rhubarb that erupted during a three-hole playoff at the 2016 U.S. Women’s Open, where Anna Nordqvist was dinged with two-stroke penalty after video replays showed her club barely grazing the sand in a fairway bunker during her backswing. Or, more recently, the incident at the ANA Inspiration, where Thompson was dealt a double-whammy (two penalty strokes for an improper marking, plus another two for signing an incorrect scorecard) that resulted from a viewer call-in.  

Some critics of the Thompson ruling (including Tiger Woods) railed against what they saw as armchair refereeing. Others complained about the time-lag in delivering the penalty; officials alerted Thompson of the bad news during Sunday’s final round, a full day after the initial violation had occurred.  

Whether Thompson, who some have contended was less-than-diligent with how she marked her ball, would have been spared a penalty under the new ruling is uncertain.  

“Every time we go through a rules change, people want to know, 'Would this have affected the outcome of this or that ruling,'” Pagel said. “But the fact is that every situation is different.” 

Future decisions in cases like Thompson’s will boil down to the difference between what sophisticated cameras can detect and what the human eye can reasonably be expected to see, and whether a tournament committee believes that a player deserves the benefit of the doubt.  

Meanwhile, though, discussions of video-related topics are far from over. Among the issues still to be resolved are how to handle information from sources outside the tournament, such as phone calls, emails and social media; and the application of penalties after a scorecard has been submitted.  

The governing bodies will be looking at these and other matters as part of their review of proposed revisions to the Rules of Golf, which will be implemented on Jan. 1, 2019.

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