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Like MLB, PGA Needs Better Replay Use

By Matt Strobl

If you’ve read my posts you’ll know that I am a big proponent of fair play and instant replay, among other things. 

If you haven’t been reading, what’s your excuse?

I support the use of replay because the technology we use to cover sporting events affords us the unprecedented opportunity to minimize human error and its effects on competition. The argument that such things are “part of the game” has always struck me as a poor excuse. We shouldn’t go on tolerating inadequacies simply because they were unresolvable in the past.

On Sunday, I reacted to the outcome at the 2010 PGA Championship in which 26 year old Dustin Johnson was knocked out of a playoff after grounding his club in a bunker. Of course that description doesn’t do justice to the complexities of the situation, and I said as much in my original piece.

Now, having had more time to reflect on the incident, I find myself opposing the ruling even more strongly, and for reasons that extend beyond this particular tournament. I had initially thought that Johnson’s predicament was due merely to rules interpretation, but I now see that this is in fact an issue of application.

Golf analyst Tom Rinaldi raised an excellent point in his analysis of the penalty. Had this happened on Thursday or Friday, the outcome would have been entirely different. Or if the shot had come on an earlier hole, Johnson would have likely made the playoff. 

Yes, in the most technical sense Johnson did break a rule, but the only reason he was caught and punished for it was that:

A) he was playing well enough to draw shot-by-shot media coverage; and
B) the shot came on one of the final holes of the match.

The CBS camera crew gave the PGA a detailed look at the shot in question, and it was only that footage that permitted officials to rule against Johnson. Had the PGA not had that replay available, Johnson would have avoided the penalty.

One could argue that he broke the rule, and regardless of whether or not he did so camera deserved to be punished. Again, that is technically true. And taking that view, it was certainly a lucky thing that all eyes were on his club at that critical juncture. But taking the opposite stance, is it in any way fair or legitimate that a minor change in circumstance might have left the man a million dollars richer with his name engraved on a prestigious trophy?

If the exact same thing had happened to Johnson on Friday instead of Sunday, there would have been no camera crew. And while a rules official does accompany any player who finds himself in such “outside the ropes” conditions, that official is there merely to observe and to offer a ruling if asked. How can the PGA or its fans be satisfied with a system that perpetuates such arbitrary enforcement of the rules?

In other words, the PGA has no effective process in place for conducting penalty assessments in the field.

This goes back to the use of the honor system; golfers are expected to self-report their transgressions, and that in itself is fine so long as players stay honest. But in Johnson’s case, he was truly and understandably unaware of any wrong-doing. After all, what golfer could possibly expect to have a few hundred spectators standing in a bunker with him?

In this case, because footage of the shot was readily available, self-reporting was overruled by video.  But it was only luck that allowed such a decision. How can the PGA or its fans be satisfied with a system that perpetuates such arbitrary enforcement of the rules?

I have decried Major League Baseball’s limited use of instant replay. It is inadequate to say the least. Expanded replay would improve the fairness of the game, but MLB has resisted changing its policy. As a result, the league continues to be plagued by bias and blown calls.

Johnson’s situation proves that the PGA is no different. Imagine if he had been 4 or 5 strokes off the lead and hit the same type of shot earlier in his round. Neither the PGA nor the public would have known anything about it. Johnson might have done exactly what he did on the back nine and gone on to win. The PGA’s selective use of video replay is perhaps even worse that the MLB’s because of the inherent difficulties in trying to record video of an entire tournament.

It would be a daunting thing for the PGA to try and capture every shot made by every golfer over four rounds. Fans can’t reasonably expect full replay to be available. But for that very reason, it’s grossly unfair for the PGA to be able to use video evidence against a player simply because they happen to have it.

I’m not sure that I can offer a complete solution, but perhaps it begins with changing the role of the rules officials in the field.  Eventually technology will advance to the point where full course coverage is economical, but in the meantime, the PGA should be taking much stronger steps to prevent controversies like the one surrounding Johnson.

The error may have been Johnson’s, but the fallout is due to the failings of the PGA.

Related posts:

  1. PGA Favors Letter of the Law Over Spirit, Removes Johnson From Playoff
  2. Jerry Rice DQ’ed, retires?
  3. ‘Year of the Umpire’ Continues


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