Rulebook: Video Evidence – Trying to Capture Golf’s Best Side

The use of video evidence to aid in investigating possible rules issues, particularly on professional tours, has always been a polarizing topic, and recent events have raised the discussion again to a fever pitch.

One of the main tasks of a tournament Committee is to determine “questions of fact” regarding the rules and possible violations, and their sole motivation is to apply these rulings correctly, and fairly, for the benefit of the entire field.  Unless a Rules Official or other Committee member is directly involved with a player at the time regarding a ruling, the gathering of all available evidence through player/spectator testimony or available video, is the only way for a Committee to resolve “unseen” events and move forward.

As we all know, professional golf at the highest levels has been televised, scrutinized and analyzed worldwide for many years. And as a result, this video evidence has been further utilized by the major tours and ruling bodies to enhance their decision-making processes regarding these questions of fact. It’s the classic definition of the double-edged sword. The more that viewers demand higher definition TV images, with multiple camera angles, and snail-paced-super-duper-slow-mo replays, the greater the available pile of evidence is for Committees to review. As a result, Decisions 18/4 and 34-3/9 were introduced to clarify the Committee’s responsibilities and limitations regarding the use of video evidence in determining a possible rules violation, and further clarified in Decision 34-3/10 in the wake of the Lexi Thompson LPGA ruling.

The four main points of contention around rulings like Lexi’s are, 1) that fans are permitted to “call in” regarding potential rules violations, 2) that the tours permit the use of video evidence at all in making rules decisions, 3) that it isn’t fair that some players are on TV and some aren’t, and 4) that in some situations penalties can be applied after the completion of a player’s round, and prior to the close of competition. Double-edged indeed.

Firstly, the tours openly encourage fan participation. It is a cornerstone of their products that fans be as close to the action, and interactions, as possible. You can’t very well then turn around and say, “bug off” when it comes to rules questions. Also remember, the Committees may field the questions, but they do also have the ultimate say as to whether these questions have merit, and are pursued further.

Secondly, it’s unfair to all involved to not have available every piece of evidence possible to assist a Committee in making an informed decision. It’s also a logistical issue. Golf courses are thousands of times larger than a hockey rink, or basketball court. It’s unreasonable and prohibitively expensive to expect video and Rules Official coverage of every player on every shot. Remember, it works both ways. A player can very well benefit from a full review. It’s not always bad news.

Thirdly, players go in to televised events knowing that it’s highly likely that they may be captured on video at anytime during the proceedings, and that the closer they get to the lead, or if they do something singularly special, that degree of certainty that they will be part of the video coverage goes up substantially. Yes, sometimes mistakes happen and rules get broken, but the expectation is there for all to proceed as correctly as possible, and that there could be electronic eyes watching as well as human ones.

Lastly, while most professional events are contested over a number of stipulated 18-hole rounds, it’s the total number of holes in the competition that matters. Therefore, penalties should, and are applied on a subsequent day of the tournament. “But why not after the tournament is over?” There are a few exceptions in the rules where a penalty of disqualification can be imposed after a competition, but in general the line should be drawn somewhere, otherwise we’d never be finished.

The bottom line is, we’re trying to get the best result for the entire field when we make rulings. And, while a ruling may not always be popular, we strive to make them as fair as possible for all concerned. Getting it right should always be the number one rule.

/ Rich McLean

Rich McLean is Golf Canada Level 4 Referee from Kanata, Ontario. He calls himself “a lifelong player, and fan of this great game.” You can find him on Twitter, @LobWedge.

“Golf has given me so much joy, and this is my small way of giving back.  Have fun. Play smart. Play well.”