As Padraig Harrington yesterday became the latest victim of "the couch-potato police force" – those TV viewers so boldly seeking to enforce golf's pettiest rules – the Royal and Ancient stood accused of dilly-dallying on a change to the laws which would have avoided yesterday's farce.
The Irishman was disqualified from the Abu Dhabi Championship for an unwitting penalty he committed during a first-round 65 which had put him in second place. A viewer watching on Sky Sports in Britain spotted Harrington's ball moving a fraction as he replaced it on the seventh green (his 16th) in front of his marker.
The viewer emailed the European Tour website and after reviewing the tapes and conducting an overnight inquiry to see if there was any way Harrington could escape banishment, an official called the three-time major winner yesterday morning to tell him there was a problem.
After seeing the slow-motion replay for himself, Harrington agreed the ball had moved "one or two dimples" and accepted he had committed an offence by not replacing the ball. And because he had signed his scorecard before adding the two-stroke penalty the punishment was disqualification.
Harrington knew the rule, knew that all he would have had to do was replace the ball, but as he did not believe the ball had moved, saw no point. Players are told only to call a referee for a ruling if they are unsure. Harrington was sure. He felt himself touch the ball, saw it rock but after checking the position of the name on the ball thought it had returned to its original position. He was to discover he was a few millimetres out. So – to the dismay of fans, sponsors, fellow players, everyone, – the man considered to be one of the most honest in the game was disqualified.
Harrington reacted with typical grace, taking it on the chin and reminded everyone that worse things happen. Once he was disqualified at the Belfry for signing the wrong scorecard when leading going into the final round by five shots. Harrington duly defended the rules, but did call for the R&A to alter one aspect.
"In a situation where a player signed his card and something has come to light that the player could not have been aware of, the penalty should then be put on the score instead of a disqualification," he said. In this case, Harrington would have been allowed to set out in his second round yesterday, but with his score at five-under rather than seven-under.
This is a view shared by the European Tour, who have presented the case to the R&A. At last year's Majorca Open, a similar fate hit the Swede Peter Hanson when a slow-motion replay caught him double-hitting the ball. Again, there was no way for the player to tell he had contravened the rules. But with the ancient governing body – who in conjunction with the USGA are in charge of the rules – seemingly clinging to the theory that the scorecard is sacrosanct, they are yet to budge.
Andy McFee, the senior referee who had the awful job of informing Harrington, confirmed "discussions are taking place. We have brought it up on repeated occasions with the R&A and we did sit down with them and have a full hearing," he said. "As yet it hasn't gone anywhere. It will be a long way down the road as we haven't got the argument fully there yet. This will help our cause."
If the R&A listens to the players it will. "A guy shouldn't be DQ'd in retrospect," said US Open champion, Graeme McDowell. "A guy, if he unknowingly signs for a certain score and gets penalised after the fact, he shouldn't be DQ'd, because he doesn't know he's broken the rules at that time."
That is the opinion of the overwhelming majority on the range. There is also widespread disdain for the growing trend of golfing trials by television. Two weeks ago Camilo Villegas was disqualified in Hawaii when a viewer rang in after seeing him flicking away a divot as his ball rolled back down a hill towards him. Ian Poulter labelled the viewer "a snitch" and, although McDowell refused to go that far, he plainly agreed with the sentiment.
"Whoever it is, is an anorak with too much time on their hands," said McDowell, who actually survived his own TV trial on Thursday when a viewer rang in questioning whether his ball had moved on the 18th green. "You know, with these high-def, slow-mo cameras we are under scrutiny to the nth degree. You can see every grain of sand and dimple on the golf ball. Ninety five per cent of the field don't have to deal with that, but the five per cent who are on TV, have to. It's not good for the game, these minor rule infringements. Was Padraig trying to gain an advantage? No. At some point the common sense has to take over."
McDowell is spot on. Poulter recently lost the Dubai World Championship play-off when penalised for his ball falling out of his hand and knocking his marker a few millimetres forwards. That came a few months after Dustin Johnson lost the USPGA when grounding his club in a dusty patch which looked nothing like a bunker. The game is being humiliated by the very rule book which is supposed to make it great.
This incident was even more of a farce than those examples. McFee's unease said it all. "The problem that I see is when an innocent penalty escalates very quickly from two strokes into a disqualification," he said. "I really don't like that." Only the R&A can put an end to these shambolic injustices. Many also believe they should simplify the ridiculously large rule book and find a way to remove penalties for transgressions where no advantage was either sought or in, realistic terms, achieved. Alas there was no collective holding of breath here last night as displayed by Poulter's sardonic tweet last night. He wrote: "The Rules of Golf, Rule 22-4, paragraph 3, line 7, 'the rules of golf are complete bollocks and are stuck back in 1932'." Couldn't agree more."
Meanwhile, there is a tournament going on and in Germany's Martin Kaymer there is an ominous leader. After a 65 the world No 3 is on 12-under and three shots clear of Charl Schwartzel. It was another masterly display by the defending champion, but one that was doomed to be overshadowed by controversy and pettiness.
How Harrington fell foul of rule book
*Why Harrington was disqualified in the words of European Tour senior referee, Andy McFee.
"The viewer called in to say that as Padraig replaced his ball on the green, as he took the coin away, his hand moved the ball. That by itself does not incur a penalty. But the rule is 20-3a: If you move a ball in the process of replacing it, or placing it, if you move the ball or the coin, and that movement is directly attributable to the specific act of replacing the ball, and they define the specific act such as the movement of the hand or the coin causes the ball to move; then there is no penalty. But the ball must be replaced. Now, in this case, the ball wasn't replaced. So the penalty for breach of that rule is two strokes, and the problem is that Padraig's card for the seventh shows a three, and the fact that Padraig was totally unaware that this ball has moved doesn't unfortunately help him. The disqualification is for signing for the wrong score, lower than actually taken."
Fussy fairways: When golf's petty rules have tripped up the players
Roberto De Vicenzo
The Argentine would have won the 1968 Masters if his partner, Tommy Aaron had put him down for a three on the 17th instead of a four. De Vicenzo didn't notice, signed for a 66 instead of a 65 and therefore had to go into an 18-hole play-off with Bob Goalby. He lost and infamously said: "What a stupid I am."
In 2000 at The Belfry, the Irishman was five shots clear going into the final round of the B&H International Open. But then the club asked for Harrington's first three scorecards to frame and in collating them an official saw that his first-round's scorecard had been signed twice by Michael Campbell – but not by Harrington. He was thus disqualified on the Sunday morning.
At the 2003 Open, the Englishman shot a third-round 67 to lie two shots off the lead. But Roe and his playing partner, Jesper Parnevik, had forgotten to swap their scorecards before play, meaning both ended up signing for the wrong scores. Result: disqualification. The R&A have since changed the rule.
The American was leading last year's USPGA Championship by a stroke going down the 18th at Whistling Straits. His drive found a patchy ground of sand which spectators had been standing in. Johnson did not realise it was a bunker and grounded his club. After finishing the hole, Johnson was told he had incurred a two-shot penalty. He therefore missed the play-off.