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One Rule for Them and One for Us

Dermot Gilleece on Padraig Harrington's disqualification and whether the R and A are right to stand firm

Posted Jan 26, 2011 by Dermot Gilleece

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During a recent golf society outing in which I happened to be involved, one of my playing partners lost his ball and though I didn’t time his search, it seemed to go on interminably.  Eventually, when I was satisfied he had comfortably exceeded the permitted five minutes, I suggested he go back to the tee and hit another drive.  But he persisted with the search, grumbling all the while: “It’s not the bloody British Open, you know.”

When he finally put another ball in play, I pointed out as gently as I could in the circumstances, that while it wasn’t the British Open, we were still obliged to play by the Rules of Golf.  In fact I said to him: “That’s the beauty of golf; we hackers play by the same rules as Tiger Woods.”

That simple fact is at the root of the problem facing the Royal and Ancient and the US Golf Association, when professional tours on either side of the Atlantic complain about the severity of disqualification. Arising out of the incident involving Padraig Harrington in Abu Dhabi last week, Andy McFee, the European Tour’s chief referee said: “I think every player is happy to accept the penalty if it is later pointed out to them, but it’s the way you accelerate from that to instant disqualification if you’ve signed your card that concerns me.”

McFee went on: “We had a long meeting with the R & A and, let’s be fair, they gave us a very good hearing.  But they wouldn’t back down (regarding retrospective penalties) and you find yourself with a situation like this one, where the punishment clearly doesn’t fit the crime.”

The rules have caused some celebrated controversies through the years. Like in the infamous ball-in-the-bottle incident in the Open Championship of 1949 at Royal St George’s where another Irishman, Harry Bradshaw, was the victim.  At the time, the rules were generally geared towards matchplay and were decidedly vague in two critical areas.  Rule 6 stated: “A ball must be played wherever it lies, or the hole be given up, except as otherwise provided for in the Rules.”

Rule 11, dealing with the removal of obstructions, stated: “Any flagstick, guide post, implement, vehicle, bridge, bridge planking, seat, hut, shelter or similar obstructions may be removed. A ball moved in the removal of such obstructions shall be lifted and dealt with as provided for in Rule 8, without penalty.”

Meanwhile, it was generally accepted at the time that a ball could be deemed to be unplayable, only if the player could not make a stroke at it and dislodge it into a playable position.  It was this which prompted Bradshaw to take the potentially dangerous action of hitting ball and bottle together, when he discovered his ball in a bottle to the right of the fifth fairway during the second round of the 1949 Open. In the event, he ran up a double-bogey at the hole and went on to tie the Open with Bobby Locke before losing a play-off for the title.

Tournament professionals these days play for very serious money, so the possibility of disqualification is an even greater fear than it was for Bradshaw. Granted, Harrington was probably more concerned last week about world ranking points, given the overall quality of the field. Either way, being deprived of the opportunity of building on a splendid first-round of 65 at Abu Dhabi was a severe blow.

The situation with the R and A and the USGA, however, is that they don’t distinguish between the professional playing for $1 million and being spied on by some rules anorak watching television, and my recent playing partner trying to grind out a score in a society outing.  That’s where the difficulty lies for the European Tour and the PGA Tour in the US, quite apart from professional tours in other parts of the world.

They would like to see a more flexible application of the rules for the benefit of their members, whereas the rule-makers see no reason to legislate specifically for a small minority of the world’s golfers.  Which makes me believe that we won’t be seeing any changes in the immediate future.

- Dermot Gilleece

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