Shepherds with ‘crooked’ sticks hitting rocks along the ground and into a hole were followed by golfers using wooden shafted clubs and balls stuffed with feathers. The ‘featheries’ were replaced by rubber balls called ‘bounding billies’ and wooden shafts were replaced with steel. Technological advancements have been part of the game since the beginning. Of course, each innovation was aimed toward helping players shoot a lower score. One strange quirk to all of it has been the belief that if a person could hit the ball further, that’s all they would need to do. Missing of course is the plain fact the game has a lot more challenge to it than hitting a long shot.
Guiding the manner in which the game is played has been a set of rules that have evolved over time particularly with each technological impact. In 1744, a group called the Gentlemen Golfers of Edinburgh met one damp, chilly day to write a one-page list of 13 rules to regulate a tournament held on the Links of Leith. As the game became more popular, so did the need to include more rules. Today, the R&A, USGA Rules Book is 232 pages long and is supported by A Rules Guide made up of an additional 522 pages. Comparatively, the NBA Rules Book consists of 68 pages and the NHL Rules Book 214 pages.
There are approximately 60 million golfers who play on a traditional golf course and another 20 million who play some form of ‘imitation’ golf. Of these, I doubt a million play by the rule book and of those at least 500,000 are golf professionals and/or top competitive amateurs. Playing strictly by the rules is difficult, onerous and from an enjoyment perspective unnecessary. It is necessary to maintain a current, quality-based and accurately worded set of rules. It is a cultural requirement toward preserving the history and development of the game for future generations. A Rule Book is also necessary to settle disputes whatever the occasion; casual, personal and/or competitively.
Other sports have rules, and they have their controversies when broken. Incidents of broken rules range from accidental, unknowingly, fudging, to blatant cheating. In fast-action sports, officials are relied upon to make instant, impartial, fair decisions. Second-guessing these is a fan-favourite past-time. However, there is another form of rules-breaking concerning those made through calculation, planning, intent and desire; desire not to get caught and a desire to influence the outcome.
History is regarded as the high court for handing down punishment but unfortunately, it hasn’t proven to be an equitable judge. Take the case of Tom Brady and ‘deflate-gate’. The NFL fined and suspended Brady for manipulating the air pressure in the footballs he was using to counteract the slippery texture of a ball holding more pressure. Tom Brady served his time and is a highly regarded person. His coach, Bill Belichick was found to be illegally using video cameras to ‘steal’ opposing team signals and he was fined $500,000. Plus, his team, the Patriots lost a ‘draft choice’. He too is still highly respected.
Pete Rose was a great player and Manager who bet on his own team. He was suspended for life and to this day is still serving his sentence. Lance Armstrong used drugs and will live in infamy forever. It seems history punishes some more severely than others.
Then we have golf rules violators. In a TV Match, Tom Watson accused Gary Player of ‘improving his line of play’. The network went immediately to a commercial. Upon their return, the entire issue disappeared. Gary Player is one of golf’s icons. Tiger Woods hit a ball into a hazard to the left of the 13th fairway at TPC in Jacksonville. The video replay clearly showed Tiger taking a significant advantage when he dropped the ball. Little was said. Tiger’s lifestyle has been questioned but his integrity hasn’t. Greg Norman refused to ‘sign’ Mark McCumber’s scorecard. Little was said and it remains that way. And, now we have Patrick Reed. He is judged harshly. He is a ‘bad-boy’. He is arrogant. He is a braggart. He has brought much of the wrath upon himself through several dubious infractions that have yet to bring an actual complaint or penalty.
At the Farmer’s Championship, he once again opened the door for criticism when he followed the rules exactly as he was allowed to do but in a way that was suspicious. He notified his playing partners that he was marking his ball to ascertain whether or not it was embedded/plugged and then lifted the ball just as he is supposed to do. The problem being nobody supervised him. His Scorer didn’t see him. No fans saw him. No Rules Official saw him. Nobody but Patrick Reed knows if the ball was embedded. Then he called for a ruling. The Rules Official tried to determine the facts but eventually determined ‘the ball was embedded in its own pitch mark’. There is no penalty. In other sports this is called “insufficient evidence to overturn the call”. There was a free drop and tons of debate.
The problem isn’t the rule nor is it the Rules Official. The problem is that history has a case with Patrick Reed. A bigger problem is of all the weeks for something like this to happen, it had to happen this week at Torrey Pines. Torrey Pines is one of the most-watched events on the TOUR because it is NFL Pro Bowl week and nobody cares about that. Torrey Pines is one of the most scenic courses on the TOUR and it is winter everywhere in North America. Millions of sports fans locked indoors due to Covid 19 restrictions and nothing else to do, so they watched Patrick Reed do something controversial regarding the rules. Adults saw it. Kids saw it and people’s dogs saw it. None of this is good for the PGA TOUR, golf or Patrick.
Another problem right around the corner is the PGA TOUR’s contract to support off-course gambling. If their product isn’t beyond reproach, there could be some serious repercussions. Remember the 1919 Chicago Black Sox or the 1970 Kansas City Chiefs controversies? They marked their respective games with irreparable damage. It is difficult to manipulate the outcome or shave points in a team sport where the Rules Officials are part of the on-field game. In golf the Rules Officials are not ‘on-the-spot’. They are available quickly but only when summoned by a player. Based on Reed’s unpredictable antics this will change.
The PGA TOUR must make a standard that no player touches his ball until an Official is present. Further, once the ball is ruled to be ‘in play’ the Rules Official will take the player’s scorecard and mark the outcome of the ruling on the card and initial it. That is the final irreversible score for that situation. Once the ruling is made, it stands.
Every sport has rulings that turn out to be incorrect but they are accepted and play resumes. PGA golf must do the same. People are waiting to find out where the players stand on the scoreboard. Gamblers are betting millions per stroke, per match, per final standing. They will bet on the outcome of a ruling. They will bet on an 18-hole score with players playing in different pairings. They want a definitive answer right now! Not after the round and not by correcting a player’s score from one or two rounds prior. Right now! Right or wrong; just final. The Patrick Reed’s of the world will cause a major catastrophe if they continue to act unabated.