Rules are rules, but cameras are not eyes: On the USGA, technology, and penalties
It’s been a helluva year for the Rules of Golf at the two major USGA championships.
Fortunately for Dustin Johnson, an awkward post-hoc assessment of a penalty stroke didn’t deny him yet another major.
And fortunately for Brittany Lang, the two-stroke penalty – a controversy that sort of felt inevitable, somehow – fell on Anna Nordqvist, who inadvertently touched two grains of sand while addressing her ball in a bunker during the playoff.
Now, a rule is a rule, and I understand that grounding one’s club in a hazard is a two-stroke penalty. What I have trouble with, however, is how the USGA decides where and when to look for a penalty.
In the case of the Men’s U.S. Open, Johnson called over a rules official. The official, Johnson, and his playing partner all discussed the issue and agreed that no penalty had been incurred. Yet, several holes later, he’s informed that there “might have been” a penalty after all. Someone in a trailer somewhere zoomed in on the ball with a high-definition, super slow-motion camera, gentlemanly agreement be damned.
Despite the stuttering, ham-handed fumbling of the penalty assessment at Oakmont, I actually find the case of the Women’s U.S. Open more bothersome. Neither Nordqvist nor Lang saw Nordqvist’s club brush the sand just behind the ball – nor, as far as I can figure out, did either caddie or the walking rules official. This means that, again, someone in a trailer watching high-def, super slow-mo, zoomed-in video saw it, using equipment that wasn’t available even 10 years ago.
Who knows how many similar infractions have occurred throughout the history of golf? Are we to place asterisks on all championships and tournament winners prior to, say, 2000 on the grounds that we only had our own old-fashioned, feeble, fallible human eyes to rely upon?
Whatever happened to the concepts of honor and accountability in golf? There has certainly always been cheating in the game, even at the highest levels, but in neither 2016 U.S. Open did anyone suggest that Johnson or Nordqvist was trying to cheat. Johnson called over an official, who deemed all to be well. No one saw anything amiss with Nordqvist’s shot – no human, anyway.
I have some friends who are police officers, who have told me that if they want to pull someone over, they can always find “probable cause": just drive closely behind any driver, and that driver will eventually make a mistake. Viola – “probable cause!”
The omnipresent microscope of high-tech video cameras strikes me as a similar sort of system, and vulnerable to the same sort of differential application. Someone in the video room doesn’t like a certain player – or has some money on the current second-place player? Well, get that camera zoomed in on every single movement, and chances are we’ll see a problem. Heck, in golf, one doesn’t even need definitive proof, just reasonable doubt that there might have been an infraction.
How can we ask players to speed up play when they know that everything they do is not only under the scrutiny of the rules official, their playing partners and caddies, the gallery, and television viewers, but also some guy in a dark trailer rewinding zoomed-in film one frame at a time, looking for infractions that are simply not visible to the naked eye?
It seems to me that golf needs a video replay rule more similar to other sports. If the player, a playing partner, a caddie, or walking rules official raises concern over a potential infraction, then go to the video – and make a decision immediately, before any more shots are played by anyone. Otherwise, move on.
Life is too short and golf rounds are already too long to scrutinize every millisecond of high-def video looking for penalties.
The “framers” of the Rules of Golf never anticipated the technology we have today. Infractions that are invisible to the naked eye certainly occurred in the past, but did not diminish the sport or its champions; they do not do so now, either.
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Now, if 'they' insist on assessing a penalty, at least make it a one stroke penalty and not a two stroke penalty. Inadvertent ball movement (or moving one grain of sand) does not deserve the same penalty as a blatant offense like actually grounding your club in the sand.