Golf clap

There’s likely no sport as rooted in its origins and tied to the past as golf. Recent events that could only occur in the 21st century are forcing changes that are likely long overdue.

Twice already in this young season, golfers have been disqualified for signing an incorrect scorecard. The scorecard itself wasn’t really the issue at hand, but it’s the penalty that the PGA had to enforce after infractions were spotted — by sharp-eyed television viewers who contacted the appropriate tour officials to turn them in.

Padraig Harrington was disqualified after a 7-under par opening round at the European Tour’s HSBC Championship almost three weeks ago after a close-up and slow-motion instant replay showed he touched his ball slightly while marking it on the green and it did not return to its original spot after moving. Someone watching on TV e-mailed the tour to alert officials.

That came a week after Camilo Villegas was bounced for a bad scorecard from the PGA’s Hyundai Tournament of Champions after unknowingly committing a two-stroke penalty of swatting away loose debris near him when his chip shot to the 15th green failed to get there and, for the second time, rolled down a steep hill back to the waiting Villegas.

The former incident disturbed me more after finding out that someone watching on the Golf Channel spotted the mistake and spent some time trying to contact the PGA through its website and even Twitter. He ultimately got his message to a golf official through a friend of his — in the media. Very few things would get me involved in a story, and this definitely doesn’t qualify in my book.

Nonetheless, both incidents led to disqualifications because the players had no idea they were committing an infraction, finished their rounds and signed their scorecards, and then were penalized after the fact thanks to TV viewers and had the “incorrect scorecard” rule invoked.

Fundamentally I think instant replay in sports is simply something that will come to pass across the board, and is already used in several instances. It’s a technology that wasn’t available before that enables the game in question to have the most equitable outcome by assisting game officials to make sure the call is right.

But does this apply to thousands, hundreds of thousands or even millions of viewers at home having the ability to affect the outcome of sporting events just because they’re almost anally acquainted with the rules of the game? Apparently for now.

The good news is that at least the Powers That Be in the golfing world sense that some aspect of the current situation has to be changed, even if it’s not necessarily the most pertinent. Rules makers with both the Royal & Ancient Golf Club and the United States Golf Association are looking into possibly changing the rules so that if a TV watcher wants to blow the whistle on an unsuspecting golfer it won’t automatically means a disqualification because of his or her scorecard.

“If you couldn’t have known that you had incurred a penalty, disqualification does seem inequitable,” R&A chief executive Peter Dawson said. “And, because we are getting more and more of these incidents, that penalty is coming more and more into focus.

“We still think there should be a penalty for getting your score wrong. But, as I said, we think disqualification is too severe.”

From this and other comments from officials, it seems clear that viewers may still continue to have the power to affect the outcome of golf events. The possibility of incurring a multiple-stroke penalty, but still being able to complete the tournament, seems the most likely scenario. Harrington and others have acknowledged that they’re happy to know people are watching at all.

“I’m comfortable with the whole idea that there’s people there watching, and I believe when I’m on the golf course I’m not going to do anything untoward,” Harrington said. “I hope that this many people watch The European Tour. I hope there’s 100 million people watching me play and checking me out. It’s good for the game.”

Whether or not those fans calling in to rat you out for something you didn’t even know you did is good for the game is up for debate. But at least if they keep doing it, it won’t automatically mean disqualification for any player, no matter how minor the infraction.

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