Have the USGA and R&A Made Things Worse with Decision 18/4?

Michael FitzpatrickFeatured ColumnistNovember 25, 2013

Jun 15, 2013; Ardmore, PA, USA; A view of a USGA flag during the second round of the 113th U.S. Open golf tournament at Merion Golf Club. Mandatory Credit: Michael Madrid-USA TODAY
Michael Madrid-USA TODAY Sports

The USGA & R&A have officially decided to address the issue of viewers calling in penalties after having witnessed the penalty occur through the use of an HD television replay, at least in relation to an illegal movement of the golf ball.

This is an issue that has been driving ardent golf fans crazy for years and has wreaked havoc on some of golf’s biggest events.

Last week, in a joint statement released by the USGA and R&A as part of their biennial review of the rules of the game, it was declared that “Decision 18/4 provides that, where enhanced technological evidence (e.g. HDTV, digital recording or online visual media, etc.) shows that a ball has left its position and come to rest in another location, the ball will not be deemed to have moved if that movement was not reasonably discernible to the naked eye at the time.”

This essentially means that if a slow motion HD television replay shows a player’s ball move by a quarter of a centimeter and the rules officials decide that the player could not have reasonably seen his or her golf ball move with their naked eye, that player will not incur a penalty for the rules infraction.

This is a modification to Rule 18-2 (“Ball at Rest Moved: By Player, Partner, Caddie or Equipment”) of the Rules of Golf and is essentially another step forward from Rule 33-7 which was implemented in April 2011 and waived disqualification for a player who signed an incorrect scorecard following a round in which that player committed a rules infraction that was later identified through video evidence.

While it is always good to see the USGA and R&A working to address new forms of technology that may be having a detrimental impact on the game of golf, Decision 18/4 actually seems to create an even larger grey area than before, and will also more than likely place many players and rules officials in difficult situations during the coming years.

Prior to Decision 18/4, the rule was clear. If an HD television replay showed that a rules infraction had occurred, the player had no choice but to accept the penalty. It made no difference how the rules infraction was identified (through the naked eye or through the use of an HD television replay).

But now the waters have grown even muddier around the use of instant replay to identify rules infractions.

Rules officials are essentially being asked to read the minds of players. Whereas previously a rules official would simply need to watch an HD television replay and decide whether or not a rules infraction had occurred based on what was often very clear evidence, now rules officials must not only identify whether a rules infraction has occurred, but must also jump into the minds of players to decide whether or not that rules infraction was, or should have been seen with the naked eye.

How in the world is a rules official meant to do that?

Decision 18/4 will also put players in a very difficult situation as they were in the same boat as the rules officials prior to this modification to the Rules of Golf. If a player was shown an HD television replay which clearly showed that a rules infraction had occurred, that player had no choice but to accept the penalty. But that is no longer the case. Players are now allowed to contest the rules infraction on the basis of them having not seen it with their naked eye while on the golf course.

This can put players in a very awkward situation because golf has always been a self-governing gentleman’s game where players are entrusted to call penalties on themselves where deemed appropriate. So, Decision 18/4 could cause many players to feel awkward about not accepting a penalty because they didn’t happen to see the penalty occur. It could raise questions in player’s minds such as:

  • Should I have seen the penalty occur?
  • Will the rest of the field believe that I truly did not see the penalty occur?
  • What will the media and general public think if I do not accept the penalty on the grounds of having not seen it with my naked eye?

This new modification to the Rules of Golf also has the potential to create a huge firestorm around simple rules infractions. There are bound to be numerous instances of a player not accepting a penalty on the basis of having not seen their ball move with their naked eye, while the general public, media and even their peers may disagree, thus increasing the likelihood of the dreaded “cheater” term being tossed around the game a bit more often.

There is also the potential for friction to arise between players and rules officials—what happens when a player is adamant that he or she did not and could not have seen the rules infraction occur with his or her naked eye while the rules official contends that the player did or at least should have seen this infraction occur with his or her naked eye?

Once again, it is good to see golf’s governing bodies trying to adapt the rules of the game to address new technological advancements that that may infringe upon the spirit of competition. However, not all change is good change, and Decision 18/4 may have actually created an even worse situation than had previously existed around penalties assessed through the use of HD television replays.