The USGA and R&A clapped back at television viewers (sort of) on Tuesday by putting into place the following two rules -- known as Decision 34-3/10 -- effective immediately. 

A player will not be penalized: 

  • When video evidence reveals things that could not reasonably be seen with the naked eye
  • When a player has made a reasonable judgment

After what happened to Lexi Thompson earlier this year at the ANA Inspiration, something had to be done. Thompson was penalized four strokes during her final round because a viewer at home emailed in about Thompson mis-replacing her ball on the green in the third round. Video evidence did seem to show that Thompson put her ball in a space other than where her marker was (by a short distance), and Thompson was hit with two penalty strokes for the incident and two for signing an incorrect card. She was infamously assessed those penalties in the middle of her final round.

This was just the latest in a long list of viewer call-ins and emails. The most famous one happened during the 2013 Masters when Tiger Woods dropped his ball farther back than he should have on the 15th hole and was penalized going into his third round.

The first portion of Decision 34-3/10 is relatively simple. If you could not have reasonably seen your error (i.e. a ball moving 1 millimeter) and it is only revealed after a zoomed-in video reveals the mistake, you will not be penalized. This is a good thing and will be more or less easy to apply to the game.

The most recent example we have of this is at last year's Women's U.S. Open when Anna Nordqvist caused some sand to move in a bunker with her club but could not have possibly seen it. It was called in, and she was penalized. But the only reason she was penalized is because the cameras were able to zoom in. Under the new rule, she would no longer have been penalized. 

The second portion of the new rule is a little more vague. Here is what the USGA and R&A say about it: 

Players are often required to determine a spot, point, position, line, area, distance or other location on the course to use in applying the Rules. Such determinations need to be made promptly and with care but often cannot be precise, and players should not be held to the degree of precision that can sometimes be provided by video technology. A "reasonable judgment" standard is applied in evaluating the player's actions in these situations: so long as the player does what can reasonably be expected under the circumstances to make an accurate determination, the player's reasonable judgment will be accepted even if later shown to be wrong by the use of video evidence.  

This is ambiguous, and I fear puts too much power into the hands of rules officials that are at these events. What is "reasonable judgement?" How many different ways can that be defined? Who is the final arbiter, the player or the head of rules?

There is no ruling on how this would have affected Thompson (or Woods, for that matter, although he indicted himself by saying on TV that he dropped his second ball farther back so this likely would not have helped him), but it feels like we are simply shifting a little bit of the power from viewers to rules officials. 

This is probably a good thing, but it doesn't eradicate the fact that folks can call in or email in about an issue. That will continue. Then rules officials must make a decision based on the situation and "reasonable judgement." If anything, this will make everything more convoluted in the future.

Imagine a scenario, if you will, at this summer's U.S. Open that is similar to what happened to Thompson at the ANA Inspiration. Rickie Fowler mis-replaces his ball in the third round, and Joe Couch in Delaware phones it in. Then what? USGA rules officials say, "So long as the player does what can reasonably be expected under the circumstances to make an accurate determination, the player's reasonable judgment will be accepted even if later shown to be wrong by the use of video evidence."

But that doesn't change the fact that, in my hypothetical scenario, a ball was put down pretty far away from the original marker. Is it reasonably expected that a player should mark his or her ball closer to the original spot? Yes, of course! But if the USGA says that and docks Fowler (again, hypothetical), then nothing actually changes.

Phil Mickelson addressed this very issue at the Masters this year.

"I know a number of guys on Tour that are loose with how they mark the ball and have not been called on it," said Mickelson. "I mean, they will move the ball two, three inches in front of their mark, and this is an intentional way to get it out of any type of impression and so forth and I think that kind of stuff needs to stop."

This stuff happens, and it doesn't change the fact that you should be penalized for doing something that is against the rules. The rub is that it feels wrong when it's called out by viewers at home (another point that wasn't addressed).

The real crux in all of this that just got blown past is that golfers shouldn't have to deal with receiving four-stroke penalties in the middle of rounds. That's insanity. That was the issue that needed to be addressed. This implementation of Decision 34-3/10 is a little bit of a misdirection by golf's governing bodies. 

It seems like they've solved something, but they really haven't. They've just shifted power so that they now have more of it. That sounds great (especially to them), but it could backfire in a hurry. And then we will all wonder what all of the fuss was about.