Bottom line of golf's rules: Game is bigger than players.
By Gerry Dulac Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Ian Poulter has had his share of run-ins with the rules of golf.
Several years ago, while he was standing on the green and waiting to putt during The Players Championship, Poulter's ball slipped out of his hands and rolled into a water hazard.
According to the rules of golf, Poulter would have been assessed a two-shot penalty if he did not finish the hole with the same ball.
Luckily, his therapist who was in the gallery stripped to his boxers, climbed down the pylons into the water and retrieved the ball for Poulter, saving him from a penalty.
Poulter was not so lucky the next time he accidentally dropped a golf ball on the green.
This time, it happened at the Dubai World Championship in 2010, on the second hole of a sudden-death playoff with Robert Karlsson, when Poulter was trying to replace his ball on the green for a 40-foot birdie putt.
As he was reaching down toward his mark, Poulter's ball slipped out of his hands just inches above the ground and landed on his marker, causing it to move ever so slightly.
The rule: Poulter was assessed a one-shot penalty, costing him a chance to win -- or at least halve -- the hole.
"It puts the focus on another stupid rule," Poulter said.
There are a lot of those in golf, some maddening, some confusing, some amusing, some even -- yes -- stupid.
But they are the rules, and golfers tend to follow them religiously, obeying the commandments set forth by the United States Golf Association and the Royal & Ancient Golf Club as though they were the secret to an after-life.
"I think there's a pretty strong spirit about wanting to do the right thing," said Jeff Rivard, executive director of the West Penn Golf Association and a man who knows the rule book better than he knows his phone number. "We were talking about rules one day, and [amateur] Sean Knapp said, 'Just because they don't know the rules doesn't mean they don't respect them or want to do it the right way.'"
Indeed, golfers might not like some of the bizarre rules that penalize players and ruin rounds, but they tend to accept them with valor, at times with even graceful embarrassment.
"At the end of the day, our rules are clear," said Jeff Hall, the USGA's managing director of the rules of golf. "Our game is unique from all others. It requires us to know the rules."
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"I have always believed there are far too many rules in golf. For me, if you cannot write them all on the back of a matchbox, then something is wrong."
-- Henry Longhurst, late British writer and golf announcer
A late-night call
Golfers are a conscientious, forthright bunch, part Boy Scout, part policeman. They call penalties on themselves for infractions that nobody else might have seen, even if the consequences are severe.
Imagine if such things happened in other sports: A tackle calling himself for holding? A forward assessing a foul on himself? A baseball player telling the umpire he didn't beat the throw to first?
Not in golf.
Bobby Jones called a one-shot penalty on himself when his ball moved every so slightly while he was preparing to hit a shot from a greenside slope, costing him the 1925 U.S. Open.
LPGA Tour star Meg Mallon once called a penalty on herself when, like Poulter, her ball fell out of her hand and hit her marker on the green, causing it to move. Like Jones, nobody saw the infraction. Except them, of course.
In 2010, Brian Davis told a rules official he might have ticked a loose impediment during a shot from a hazard in a playoff at the PGA Tour's Heritage Classic, even though the infraction was visible only when viewed in super-slow motion. For his honesty, Davis was given a two-shot penalty that handed the title to Jim Furyk.
Then there was the case of J.P Hayes in the second stage of qualifying school in 2008. He not only called one penalty on himself in the round, but another that night while sitting in his hotel room -- a move that might have cost him his PGA Tour card.
Here's what happened:
On his 12th hole of the first round, Hayes' caddie reached into his golf bag and tossed a ball to Hayes, who played two shots before marking his ball on the green. When he did, Hayes realized the ball he was playing was not the same model with which he started the round, which, by rule, is a two-stroke penalty.
Hayes shot 74 that round and followed with a 71 in the second round, still putting him in good shape to finish in the top 20 and advance to the final stage of qualifying. But, sitting in his hotel room at night after the second round, Hayes realized that the ball he put into play in the first round -- a Titleist prototype that had been in his bag for four weeks -- might not have been on the USGA's approved list.
Hayes could have said nothing and kept playing because nobody was aware of the mistake. Instead, he called a rules official that night, who called Titleist in the morning. Because the ball was not on the approved list, Hayes was disqualified for using an illegal ball.
"I would say everybody out here [on the PGA Tour] would have done the same thing," Hayes said.
Well, maybe not.
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"You might as well praise a man for not robbing a bank as to praise him for playing by the rules."
-- Bobby Jones
It's all about the game
Not all golfers have been so forthcoming -- at least, not according to some of their own.
In 1995, Greg Norman accused playing partner and 10-time winner Mark McCumber of cheating during the NEC World Series of Golf in Akron, Ohio, saying McCumber repaired a piece of grass from a spike mark with his thumb and forefinger while preparing to putt an 8-footer for par.
That would violate a rule that prohibits player from touching the line of their putt, other than to repair a ball mark or remove a loose impediment such as a bug or pebble, which is what McCumber claimed he was doing. Norman was so incensed he refused to sign McCumber's scorecard.
In 1983, at a skins game in Arizona, Tom Watson accused Gary Player of cheating for removing a growing leaf behind his ball -- a charge Player vehemently denied.
Before he played on the PGA Tour, Vijay Singh was accused of altering his scorecard in order to make the cut at a tournament in Jakarta, an allegation Singh has denied.
Bob Toski withdrew from the Senior PGA Tour for five months in 1986 after he was accused and later admitted he mismarked his ball on the putting green to improve his line. Among the charges was that Toski would move his mark sideways to avoid putting over spike marks left by fellow players.
Jane Blalock faced the same accusations on the LPGA Tour -- incorrectly marking her ball on the green -- and had a case built against her by the tour's executive committee in 1972 that would have suspended her for the rest of the season.
Blalock fought the tour in court, and the case was eventually thrown out on the grounds the executive committee was composed of LPGA Tour players who had a conflict of interest in banning a fellow competitor, especially a good one.
More than 40 years after they were paired together in the 1958 Masters, Ken Venturi accused Arnold Palmer of breaking the rules when "the King" won the first of his four green jackets. Venturi made the accusation in a new book, saying the situation surrounding a drop Palmer received behind the 12th green in the final round was wrong and "that he knows I know he did wrong."
Venturi added, "Nobody, not even Palmer, is bigger than the game."
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"If you call on God to improve the results of a shot while it is still in motion, you are using 'an outside agency' and subject to appropriate penalties under the rules of golf."
-- Henry Longhurst
TV a factor, too
With so much golf on television, and with cameras seemingly on every hole, it is increasingly tougher for infractions committed by players to go undetected.
Over the years, TV viewers who have spotted infractions have called in and heaped penalties -- and disqualifications -- on players such as Craig Stadler, Padraig Harrington and Camilo Villegas.
But, because some of the infractions are detected only by super slow-motion/high definition and not by the naked eye, the USGA and the Royal & Ancient revised one of its rules last year so that players who learn of a violation after they have signed their scorecard will be penalized but not disqualified.
"There have been a lot of changes in the rules, and the USGA has worked to take a lot of things out," Rivard said. "They've taken some archaic things out to simplify some penalties."
But golfers, honest and forthright, will still call them, usually on themselves.