While Rory McIlroy’s dominating performance at the 2012 PGA Championship certainly impressed this past weekend, I found myself confronted with a unsettled feeling as I watched the final round and witnessed once again television and the use of replay altering the final outcome of the tournament. Specifically, the two stroke penalty given to Carl Pettersson on the first hole when his back swing inadvertently caused a leaf move when playing his second shot out a hazard…a violation of Rule 13-4c. Pettersson was deemed to have moved the leaf, not by the official walking with the group, but rather PGA officials who spend over 30 minutes reviewing the video footage.
Now the enforcement of penalty strokes by way of reviewing video footage is nothing new on the PGA Tour and in the majors, the most famous being Dustin Johnson’s grounding of his club in a “bunker” on the 18th hole of the 2010 PGA Championship. The resulting penalty eliminated Johnson from the ensuing playoff for the Watermaker Trophy and cost the golfer the opportunity to win his first major. There have even been instances of television viewers “calling in” rules infractions and tournament officials assessing penalties.
But while most people seem fixated on the interpretation of the rule that cost Pettersson two strokes and whether it should be applied literally or in the spirit of the game, it’s the use of video to review and penalize a competitor that I have become uneasy with.
The root of my discomfort is that the Rules of Golf and any additional tournament specific rules are supposedly designed to create an equal playing field for all. However, the current use of video replay to enforce these rules in itself creates inequality, potentially providing some players with an advantage over others.
It’s a fact every shot by every player in a tournament is not filmed nor are cameras consistently placed in positions to capture the details of a golfer’s actions that would allow officials to review the footage and deem whether or not a rules infraction has taken place. Consequently I would argue that the penalizing of Pettersson was unfair and provided other competitors with a distinct advantage.
Yes, Petterson did violated a rule of golf by inadvertently causing a leaf to move while in a hazard. However, if there had been no camera to capture the violation, then no penalty would have been incurred because neither Pettersson nor the tournament official walking with the group could identify or confirm anything egregious had taken place. Pettersson himself felt he had done nothing wrong, because he had followed the detailed rules explanation given to him by a tournament official prior to hitting the ball.
Of course one could say that having video footage of your shots comes with the territory; that if you’re playing in a big name group or amongst those on the leaderboard you should expect to be filmed and have penalties enforced.
Still others might say that the two stroke penalty Pettersson incurred is a moot subject, mainly because he wouldn’t have been able to exceed McIlroy’s score and thus would have fallen short of winning the PGA Championship anyways. However the penalty did contribute to Pettersson finishing in a tie for third place, one stroke back of second place finisher David Lynn. Finishing in third place meant that Pettersson received $384,500 in winnings instead of $865,000, a difference of nearly half a million dollars.
And although it’s impossible to determine how much the penalty really hindered Pettersson’s overall performance during the final round (he did birdie consecutive holes after learning of the being assessed the two penalty strokes) a serious problem exists with penalizing Pettersson.
Tournament officials cannot prove without a doubt that David Lynn never committed a rules infraction during tournament play, because there weren’t camera crews hawking around every shot he took.
Lynn, an invitee by the PGA of America who was playing in his first tournament in the U.S., was largely incognito during each round, except for the token video clips of the Englishman’s birdie putts during the final round.
Golf is a gentleman’s game with golfers calling penalties on themselves (which most actually do) and using that rationale one assumes Lynn never made a rules infraction during the 2012 PGA Championship because the golfer never penalized himself. However, Pettersson never thought he had committed a penalty either and it was only because of a review of video footage that a penalty was assessed. So who is to say that if every shot of Lynn’s was reviewed that a penalty couldn’t be found?
Now I seriously doubt that Pettersson is going to sue the PGA of America over the fact that he potentially lost nearly $500,000 in winnings because of the officials’ ruling. But what if Pettersson had finished in 5th place and because of that had failed to qualify for next year’s Masters (4th place and better automatically qualify)?
What if it wasn’t Pettersson who this had happened to? What if it was a lowly ranked professional who was just scraping by and was having the tournament of his life?
Is it really inconceivable to believe that at some point in the future the PGA Tour and/or a major will be confronted with a serious problem in using video to penalize players? Because what if there is another circumstance similar to that of Dustin Johnson’s, where a golfer actually loses a tournament on the final hole of play because of a rules infraction that is subject to interpretation? Specifically what if the golfer in question was an individual fighting for his life to remain on tour and desperately needed a tournament win to continue the pursuit of his dream (a tour win insures a player has a card for the next two years and a major the next five years)?
One has to believe that at some point a professional will bring a lawsuit against the PGA Tour, USGA, or PGA of America for their usage of video that hinders them from winning or profiting from a tournament (even if players have signed some type of contractional agreement…which I don’t believe that player currently do). Because while officials can prove a player committed a penalty using replay, they can’t prove that any other given player hasn’t. I know that I’d sue if this happened to me. Wouldn’t you?
So, now is the time to institute a firm and clear policy about the use of video. Either ensure that every player is filmed and can be held accountable for any possible rules infractions or do away with video review all together unless a player is calling a penalty on themselves and asking for confirmation.*
*I fully recognize that filming every shot taken during the course of a tournament is a logistically nightmare and frankly unreasonable, but it is the only way to create a level and equal playing field without simply doing away with official enforced video review.
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