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Front 10: Changes to instantly improve a slow-to-adjust sport

by | CBSSports.com Senior Golf Columnist
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Half of Harrington's Abu Dhabi problem has been fixed; Elling would fix the other half. (Getty Images)  
Half of Harrington's Abu Dhabi problem has been fixed; Elling would fix the other half. (Getty Images)  

ORLANDO, Fla. -- With a high-def TV and some sharp eyes, you've probably noticed it over the years.

There was a cozy, green scoring shack long situated behind the 18th green at Augusta National, where players signed their Masters scorecards and top officials from various golf organizations sat at a long table and soberly reviewed the results.

Well, after several years as a veritable landmark -- everybody from Phil Mickelson to Tiger Woods stood beside the building as they tearfully hugged their families after memorable wins -- it has been mothballed. After years of discussion, the scoring center in 2012 will be relocated to the main clubhouse, which, for Augusta National, is like moving heaven and earth.

Things can be slow to change in golf, although by most yardsticks, this season was one of major upheaval. For starters, a few weeks after popular Padraig Harrington was disqualified after the fact when a TV camera indicated that his ball moved almost imperceptibly on a green as he prepared to putt, the R&A and USGA changed the rule regarding replays and rules.

A few months after Webb Simpson lost in New Orleans by a stroke when his ball moved after he'd addressed it on the putting green, costing him a penalty shot, the rule was overhauled. Rightly so. He never intended to hit it, never touched it and shouldn't pay the price because the dark forces of Isaac Newton made the ball rock forward a dimple or two.

Both decisions were roundly applauded as overdue. So, now that golf is on a reactive, responsive, redemptive roll, let's keep the erasers out and continue rewriting. Everybody's an editor this week.

Rather than dust off those old offseason chestnuts, like another list of best shots, or a trite compendium of resolutions as the 2012 season approaches Jan. 2, here are a few suggestions that not only would imbue the whole enterprise with even more integrity, accountability and fairness, but in a couple of regards, would help the lowly ticket-holders along the gallery ropes, too.

As we learned in 2011, even in a centuries-old game, rules and regs occasionally can be tweaked if the outcry is large enough. If you were the virtual commissioner, or one of the game's rule-makers, what overhauls would you propose?

By the way, just for the sake of context, be reminded that the professional tours are empowered to enforce any "local rule" they see fit, be it on a weekly or permanent basis, regardless of that the R&A and USGA decide, which could apply to specs on golf balls, groove designs on clubs or something as obvious as free drops offered on imbedded balls.

So, before anybody slams a fist down on the conversational table with regard to these tour tweaks and says, "they can't," understand that in broadest regards, it's more akin to, "they don't." Because they certainly could.

Here in our idyllic, vacuum of a utopian world, these fixes are both easy and obvious, and we'd be surprised if you didn't agree -- or suggest going a few spiked steps farther, in fact.

1. Failure to commit
On the PGA Tour, eligible players have until 5 p.m. of the Friday before to commit to the tournament field the following week. For certain players, especially Tiger Woods, it becomes a shell game at times. In an era when tournaments and broadcasters need all the marketing lead time they can muster to be successful, to prepare print or TV ads, the deadline needs to be moved back another week. For instance, Woods still hasn't said where he will make his 2012 debut in the States, playing the same cat-and-mouse game. It's unfair to tournaments, ticket-holders and even media who'd like to cover the event for readers everywhere. Simple fix.

2. Fine and dandy
Eleven months ago, in a bit of news that was downright shocking in the States, it was learned that Woods had been fined for spitting on a green at a tournament in Dubai. Huh? You mean the European Tour announced sanctions against players and the skies didn't fall? What a concept. A few months later, John Daly was zapped for berating an official at a Euro Tour event. Woods immediately apologized, which showed two things. First, that the tour had the moxie to publicly punish its top players. And second, that refusing to announce sanctions creates a very real credibility issue for a sport that claims to be above such nonsense. One of the most asinine issues of the year was whether Rory Sabbatini was suspended for his part in two separate on-course blowups in the spring -- he disappeared from regular tour events for two months.

3. But first things first
For the PGA Tour to fairly enforce sanctions against players, it needs to muster up a codified list and actually circulate it. The commissioner and his staff minions purportedly mete out punishment subjectively, according to their whims and not any circulated, stipulated policy. So how is a third-tier scrub to know the same yardstick is being uniformly used when rules are broken, that the punishment meter is being applied equally? Yeah, right. The tour makes up rules as it goes along, as when it cleared Woods to play in Abu Dhabi in January, held the same week at Torrey Pines, even though he didn't play in the mandated 15 tournaments in the States in 2011 to qualify for the release. Lovely.

4. Book it
The Harrington debacle underscored the emerging role that media play in the rules. His ball moved and he didn't notice, and he wasn't gonged until after his card had been signed. Well, that works two ways. For years, electronic scoring has been used on the top tours, making pencils and scorecards veritable relics of a past era. Here's a new rule that should be applied immediately -- unless it is suspected a player cheated, all scores at the end of the day are deemed final. Sure, there are some issues with that admittedly simple-minded approach, but other sports don't retroactively kick guys to the curb hours or days later for simple scoring errors.

5. When change isn't good
Here's a contemplative notion that golf absolutely should not revise. The PGA Tour is considering all but shelving the decades-old Qualifying School track as a way to crack the big leagues, partly in a cheesy attempt to make the Nationwide Tour a more valuable commodity to future naming-rights bidders. Blowing up Q-school? Back in the day, they used to hold it twice a year. The biggest slight is that for top college players who have just graduated or turned pro, the plan would require them to play a season on the developmental Nationwide (which bails as a sponsor after 2012, hence this proposed makeover). Consider the list of recent players who cruised through Q-school in their first crack out of college, including Ryder Cuppers Dustin Johnson, J.B. Holmes, Jeff Overton and Rickie Fowler, who have retained their cards every season since. You know who else navigated his way through Q-school straight out of college? Some kid named Luke Donald, back in 2001. After this rule change, rather than trying to grab the brass ring in the States, foreign-born players will conceivably head straight to Europe and never look back. Boo. Hiss.

6. Life in the slow lane
The tour compiles a list of players and fines for slow play. In fact, it supposedly possesses a list of players ranked according to their times, sort of like the list of runners crossing the line at a marathon. Make it public. Double the slow-play fines. Public paddling will do more to motivate the slowpokes than any other mode of ... motivation.

Cutting putters down to size
7. A few years ago, the governing bodies at long last enacted a rule in which drivers were capped in maximum clubhead size and shaft length as a means of keeping technology somewhat in check. In other words, it was a rollback. The same should be done with putters, because the belly and broom models are reducing the element of skill in putting. Set a maximum putter length, whatever it is, and apply it globally, at least in the professional game.

8. Fields of green
We're well past the point where limited-field events will ever be scaled back, of course. The tours have pitched the idea to title sponsors that smaller means more exclusive, though in reality, that's debatable. The WGC events, of which there are four, are the primary purveyors of the limited-field madness, wherein around 64 to 75 players get paid, even for showing up and falling down dead. Fans are shortchanged because there aren't as many players to watch. So here's a fast, legit, fix. Only pay the top 32 or so, which means no money for the guys who did a little more than show up. Official money for losing in the first round at Accenture Match Play? Come on.

9. Busting out the nail gun
This should have been done by now -- long ago, actually. Ban metal spikes, or what players often call "nails," on the major tours. Even influence peddlers like Woods and Phil Mickelson are using soft spikes, which cause less damage on the greens and in theory should generate fewer marks around the cup at the end of a round. With less tapping and tamping, it might even speed up play, and who's against that? Besides, it's yet another tiny part of the game that needlessly separates the pros and the amateurs -- most of us are barred from wearing metal spikes, period -- that can quickly be eliminated.

10. Democracy takes a hit
The rumor is Luke Donald was named the 2011 PGA Tour Player of the Year by a wide margin. Of course, we'll never really know, because the paranoids at the tour have never released the vote totals of the membership, which makes a mockery of the whole process. Golf is the ultimate meritocracy, and the best player is decided by a democratic process, so by gawd, release the vote totals. The only plausible reason the tour doesn't is because, as with public elections these days, the voter turnout is embarrassingly low. Who cares? Mail ballots to media (like with the Heisman Trophy or Halls of Fame in other sports) and broaden the potential electorate. Where's the transparency here? To quote a famous amateur, This isn't Russia. Is this Russia? This isn't Russia.

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