When Rulehawks Attack and Why Golf Benefits

After "Double Dare" and before an inexplicably long run at Food Network, Marc Summers used to host a show on Nickelodeon called "What Would You Do?" that put people in random situations, seeking to see how they would respond to constraints and rewards. Sure, it had a lot to do with slime and pies, but the idea holds: given certain parameters, how would you play something out?

It seems that's the right question to ask when thinking about the rules violations of the last two weeks — Dustin Johnson's bunker boo-boo and Juli Inkster getting Dairy Queened for swinging with a weight to stave of stiffness during a nap-inducing half-hour wait at the LPGA's Safeway Classic.

In each situation, ultimately, the player broke one of the rules. For Johnson, it was a local rule brought about by the absurdity that is Pete Dye's Whistling Straits. Inkster infracted against a USGA rule of golf, but did so out of boredom/other rules violations in front of her. Even armed with a good excuse, a player has no right to break the rules. It's not unfair for them to be penalized for it.

Here's where the tricky part comes in, though. In both cases, it was not the player themselves that initiated the penalty. For Johnson, it was some PGA of America official watching the telecast because David Price was too busy playing Traffic Cop instead of doing his job. A fan watching Golf Channel's LPGA coverage caught Inkster's mistake and alerted the LPGA Tour directly, which set off the disqualification process.

The anonymous fan who ratted out Inkster when a thousand fans who saw it in person said nothing is being lambasted in golf and sporting circles this morning. Golf is getting a 4-iron to the crotch because it actually allows spectators — in person or remotely — to levy penalties against players. We did a photoshop yesterday mocking these individuals just itching to point out rules violations via telephone with a fake hotline/textline for viewers with their rule book handy. (Me? I have the Federalist Papers in my back pocket.) While that post made certain individuals unhappy, most laughed out loud — they want butt-in-skis to keep the offices of the major tours clear for more important business.

Even though I'm happy to poke fun at this kind of mercurial memory of the Rules of Golf, I find myself siding with them or any spectator that calls out a rules violation in the sport.

Let's get back to D.J. for a second. It's not abundantly clear that David Price realized what Johnson had done, though the plume of dust probably gave it away. No, the damning evidence was the television (as well as 10 still) cameras perched directly behind Johnson when he grounded his club in the bunker behind a curtain of people. As Johnson grounds his club in the dirt, CBS' Jim Nantz can barely be heard muttering, "Oh boy." Nantz knew what transpired, and despite David Feherty's lamentations to the contrary, someone on the CBS golf team — assemble! — caught it and knew the local rule, however ridiculous it is.

At that point, there was no way the PGA of America couldn't call a penalty, right? It's been broadcast on global TV. If they let him slide, then players would come out for years about the rules they broke which were caught. Bring on Craid Stadler, DQ'd for kneeling on a towel while he hit out of a squirrely lie in '81. There are others DQ'd by the videotape who would have Maury interviews lined up to share their sob stories.

And if the PGA of America didn't notice, wouldn't Nantz had to have said something on air? I'm not going to make the allusion and comparison to bloody murder, but maybe stealing a Fabrege egg is an appropriate parallel. If Johnson made bogey (or par) and went on to win and Nantz didn't say anything then and there, players would have come out against D.J. and the PGA of America for not noticing. Johnson would be a stained champion. Nantz would be a fraud. The public would be upset that a rule-breaker won a major championship. What's worse for the integrity of the game?

In 2005, Michael Bamberger of Golf Magazine faced a similar situation. Watching Michelle Wie in her pro debut in the hyper-limited field Samsung World Championship (who, richly, make very nice TVs for viewing rules breaches in crystal clear HD), Bamberger noticed Wie took an improper drop. Her drop landed a foot closer to the hole. Bamberger sat on the infraction all day, talking to Michelle afterward, sleeping on it, and — unable to get out the damn spot — contacted the LPGA Tour. Eventually, Wie was disqualified.

Bamberger, for his part, was crucified by the public. He was labeled as having an agenda. Smarmy (and rather ignorant) commentators said Bamberger must be pleased with himself for creating a story. Well, that's not the case. Bamberger has been a long-time golfer — caddy, even — and a fan of the game. He toiled with the idea of getting a player disqualified for breaking the spirit of a rule, even if there was no malice.

In fact, it was Bamberger's retelling of the situation to his employer in 2008 that drew my conclusion for me on this issue. If Bamberger saw this same rules violation at home and he had called in, it wouldn't have been any different for me than his eying it live and in person.

Call it spying, voyeurism, or sticking your nose where it doesn't belong, but when there is a rotten stench in golfdom, it is the obligation of a spectator to call out what they smell.

Yes, the people who take the time to spot a rules violation, play it back to confirm it, consult the USGA Rules of Golf, have the Tour office on speed dial, and phone in Rule 14-3/10 like they were ordering beef fried rice for takeout do need a life. Clearly, they are shut-ins. Still, I would much rather them be there, watching over the integrity of the game, than playing Pinochle on their laptops.

From the sporting world at large, the complaint is that no other sport even fields calls from fans to document and persecute rules violators. Really? How about the Mitchell Report? A lot of the names released were done so on the good word of Brian McNamee, or other players who squealed. Armando Galarraga would have a perfect game under his belt if fans could phone in umpire mistakes of that magnitude. Vlade Divac's career would have been 10 years shorter if fans could complain about flopping to the league office. Mike Periera's life would have been more hectic with an obscene number of complaints about PI from abject failures of NFL fans-turned home officials, but they might have caught something. Maybe Brett Hull wouldn't have scored a goal while in the crease in the NHL Finals.

Plainly: a lot of controversy could have been avoided if other sports did allow for what golf does.

The legitimate gripe from the opposite argument is that both Johnson and Inkster fell victim to the rules observations because they were playing well enough to get filmed in the first place. It's for the players that don't get on TV that I hope there are more Bambergers, to counter balance the small sliver of the field that does get on TV. The videotape doesn't lie, but people can.

After the Johnson debacle, I — and others — wondered just how many times that same local rule was broken over the course of a week. We only know of one other: Stuart Appleby in '04, but how many others happened that were never caught on tape? Players that are golfing like crap or are so unrecognizable to the public that a network would rather broadcast Barney the Dinosaur episodes than show them don't get that kind of attention. Fans, then, should be attuned to the possibility that they might ignorantly break the rules. For the protection of the players who have crowds three deep or more following them, the one or two faithful Webb Simpson (random name, he's a nice guy) fans that watch him through thick and thin better be equipped to tattle on him if he commits a rules crime.

Yes, the circumstances around both Dustin Johnson and Juli Inkster getting golf flogged for their sins are unfortunate. Each clearly had no intent to break the rules or use them to their advantage. Then again, Arjun Atwal clearly used the rules to his advantage to win his first PGA Tour event — and there's no backlash about that. As golfers, though, we all play within the same sandbox (at least when it is appropriately recognized as such). If it happened to me while I was in contention for my club championship, I'd be upset but I would understand.

Unlike the likes of the directionless losers in their 20s propped up in a recent 10-page New York Times article, golf can benefit from helicopter guardians. The reputation of the sport, defined by a man from the 20s — Bobby Jones, said of being praised for calling a penalty on himself in 1925, "You may as well praise a man for not robbing a bank." These violations may have cost Inkster and Johnson a hefty add-on to their bank accounts, but the sport would have been held up of its honor had the rules not been properly applied.

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