Monday, April 19, 2010

Golf's Honor Comes Through Again: Rule 13-4-c

Imagine in a baseball game, say the bottom of the 20th inning, one out, runner on third, fly ball hit deep to center field, the runner tags up, the catch is made, the man on third sprints home, the umpire calls him safe and says the home team wins. The runner, though, turns to the umpire and says, “I think I left third too soon. I should be out. Check the replay.”

That’s not going to happen. Neither is this: In an NFL playoff game, in overtime, the quarterback throws what should be the game winning touchdown pass but an offensive lineman tells the referee to call back the play because he was holding which should be a penalty, taking away the touchdown.

In every sport, except one, rules are broken, results are determined and life goes on. Even in tennis, a player will not call his or her own ball out, changing the outcome of a point, much less a game, set, or match.

But in golf, it’s different. In this gentleman’s game, the players are quick to penalize themselves, changing the results or giving advantage to an opponent. Sunday, at the Verizon Heritage golf tournament at Hilton Head Island, in a sudden death playoff, Brian Davis, an Englishman trying to win for the first time on the United States PGA Tour, did just that. On his backswing from within a hazard, his club head brushed a loose impediment—in this case a dead reed. No one but Davis realized it and he said he didn’t even feel it when it happened. Basically, but bringing the possibility to the attention of a rules official, Davis imposed a two-shot penalty on himself. Jim Furyk, made par on the only playoff hole and won the tournament. Davis didn’t even finish the hole.

What happened falls under The Rules of Golf, Rule 13: Ball Played As It Lies. And, when Davis’ second shot on the 18th holes (used for the playoff), hit in play and then bounced into Calibogue Sound, Davis had a choice: Play the ball from the hazard, or take relief with one penalty shot and drop the ball just outside the Sound and then try to chip in for a par. The CBS television commentators were leaning towards the latter while David contemplated the former. He was in a hazard, into which he and his caddie walked, standing over the ball, pointing to all sorts of obstacles, trying to determine the best possible shot. With a TV cameraman standing in the hazard behind the ball and getting a full view of Davis’s swing, we watched as the ball sailed out of the Sound, onto the green, resting about 20 feet from the hole. Every TV viewer, the announcers, the fans in attendance and Furyk assumed Davis would just have to make the putt to extend the playoff another hole.

But, then Davis turned to PGA Tour Official Slugger White, telling him he thought he struck the reed on his back swing. Walkie-talkies went into action; super, slow-mo replays did as well, showing a national television audience that indeed Davis had done exactly when he thought. The penalty was two-strokes and Davis was to continue from where the ball hard come to rest on the green, putting for double-bogey six and not par four. He quickly struck the ball and then conceded to Furyk who had to finish the hole—he knocked in a short putt for four—to make it official.

The Rules of Golf is not a very thick document; the rules are pretty much straight forward. If IRS rules and regulations were written this way, no one would have a problem filing tax forms. Even the Decisions of the Rules of Golf, a much thicker document, is simple. The Rules book itself is only 6”x4”x.25” and can be found in golf bags of most serious golfers and some others who want to learn and understand the game.

Rule 13 is one to which every golfer should adhere. Tee the ball on every hole. From then to the green, hit it where you find it without moving it. Then, on the putting surface, and only then, mark the ball, clean and replace and putt. There are a few exceptions such as moving the ball from casual water, and sometimes local rules allow movement, but, in reality, there is no such thing as “winter” rules when fairways may not have much grass so players move the ball here and there to gain a better lie. Just pull a club and hit it.

In particular, the rule for Davis’ situation was Rule 13-4: Ball in Hazard; Prohibited Actions which says: Except as provided in the Rules, before making a stroke at a ball that is in a hazard (whether a bunker or a water hazard) or that, having been lifted from a hazard, may be dropped or placed in the hazard, the player must not: c. Touch or move a loose impediment lying in or touching the hazard.

It’s simple, but let’s look at some definitions:

Stroke: the forward movement of the club made with the intention of striking at and moving the ball, but if a player checks his downswing voluntarily before the clubhead reaches the ball he has not made a stroke. (So, the back swing is not part of the stroke; only when the player starts to move the club toward the ball, not away, does the stroke begin.)

Loose impediments: Natural objects including stones, leaves, twigs, branches and the like, dung, and worms, insects and the like, and the casts and heaps made by them, provided they are not fixed or growing, solidly embedded, or adhering to the ball. Sand and loose soil are loose impediments on the putting green but not elsewhere. Snow and natural ice, other than frost, are either casual water or loose impediments, at the option of the player. Dew and frost are not loose impediments.

If you were watching the broadcast, just a few moments earlier, the cameras showed a player hitting from a sand bunker (hazard) which was dotted with those yellow things we find all over our yards and driveways this time of year. When gathered with a rake or blower, those yellow things look like a giant yellow Brillo pad but softer. Anyway, the announcer on that shot was quick to remind us none of those items in the hazard could be moved, but he failed to remind us the clubhead on its backswing could not come in contact with those items.

It was a different situation but Davis reminded us of the rule just a few holes later. So, when Davis took his backswing, his clubhead brushed against a reed. When the PGA official was discussing the situation with others, he tugged on the reed in questions to determine if it was dead or alive. It was dead. Two shot penalty.

Davis could have kept quiet but he’s a golfer. “I didn’t actually feel (hitting it),” Davis told Furyk, “but I saw something out of the corner of my eye. I could not have lived with myself if I had not called it on myself.”

It wasn’t a life or death situation by any means, but it was the honorable thing to do. Not something you’ll find in any other sport or competition.

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