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Quick Take: Rules changes on use of TV evidence in golf

· golf,sports law

On Monday the R&A and USGA announced both a new local rule and a protocol for how video evidence will be used to apply the rules of golf. The announcement and explanations can be found here but can be summarized as follows:

  • Local Rule (effective 1 January 2018):  Where a player signs for a wrong score due to not including penalty stroke(s) they do not know that they had incurred when signing their card (e.g. which come about later upon review of broadcast footage), then there is no longer an additional 2 stroke penalty for signing for an incorrect score.  This will act as an amendment to the exception to the existing rule 6-6d and the change will be permanently adopted when the modernized rules of golf are introduced in 2019.
  • TV Review Protocol:  A dedicated rules official will now monitor the TV broadcast footage to identify rules issues as they occur, and television viewer "call-ins" will not longer be considered.

The rule and protocol change has come about partly in reaction to several entirely unsatisfactory and high profile rulings in recent major events, most notably the penalty applied against Lexi Thompson in the ANA Inspiration, shown here. Golf is somewhat unique in that penalties can be retrospectively applied at any time during an ongoing competion. In theory, a rule breach committed during a first round on a Thursday can be penalized up until the completion of the event on Sunday if it does not come to light until then. Controversy has stemmed from the fact that several of these "delayed" penalties have impacted the outcome of the tournament and have come about due to television viewer call-ins where a viewer has spotted a potential penalty missed by players or rules officials.

The new local rule removing the additional 2 shot penalty for signing a wrong card is both sensible and required, and well done to the governing bodies for acting (in golfing terms) relatively quickly to address this unfairness. There is just no justification for applying further penalty against a player when they had no idea they had breached the rules in the first place.

The television review protocol is also to be welcomed, although I am not sure how much of an impact it will have. Clearly the thought behind the protocol was to discourage/prevent viewer call-ins by both stating that there would be no method to accept such call-ins, and to encourage confidence that penalties would not be missed given the dedicated tv rules official. The issue here, however, is that there never was a method or procedure for viewer call-ins in the first place, so nothing is being removed. Further, the protocol makes clear that officials will continue to take into consideration reported rule breaches from any credible source - the examples given being on-course witnesses, caddies, etc, but this list is non-exhaustive. The protocol also emphasis the need to consider "all available evidence".

It seems to me, then, that if a tv viewer or viewers happen to spot an infringement and attempt to notify the officials, while there will (as before) be no official channel to do so, if the rules officials become aware- and that won't be hard if it is being shared on social media - then I am sure they would investigate. Indeed, they will probably feel duty bound to do so as their obligation to apply the rules of golf would ultimately overrule a protocol advising that viewer call-ins should be ignored.

The only way to entirely prevent controversies such as that which affected Lexi would be to apply a time limit for penalties. Scores could be locked and unalterable at the end of a day's play or at midnight. The contrary argument made by the governing bodies is that golf tournaments are one continuous 72-hole competition, even if they are played over 4 days. The fact, however, that penalties cannot be applied after completion of the competition on Sunday makes this feel somewhat unfair and I would have liked to have seen a time limit applied. Ron Sirak made this very point in an interview on golf channel on Monday morning.

Overall, these imperfections with the rule changes shouldn't cloud the fact that these are smart, much needed updates and are a very welcome move from golf's governing bodies, who seem to have recognized both the outcry from the golfing public regarding recent controversial incidents, and the wider issue that these sort of things do nothing to help golf's image as a staid sport, wrapped up in its own overly complicated rules. And as for tv viewers who don't seem to have anything better to do than flag up potential rule infringements, I think the guys at Skratch covered that best..

Jamie McDonald is a business and legal advisor operating in the sports, media, technology and entertainment industries. He specialises in advising athletes, sports events, media organisations and tech companies on both commercial and legal issues. Prior to founding his consultancy he was in-house counsel for IMG Golf in London for 7.5 years.

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