Recent drama over golf rules out of control

What’s happened to the “gentlemanly” game of golf? When did it become so complex and rancorous?

The 13 original rules of golf, drafted in 1744 by what would become The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, required all of 356 total words to get the point across of playing a ball from tee to hole. The gist of everything in between boiled down to 10 words at the tail end of rule No. 10: “The Ball so stop’d must be play’d where it lyes.”

The intervening 269 years have done nothing to simplify things. It takes a law degree to figure out what is going on in the game these days and debate-club experience just to have a conversation about it. Rarely have the rules and their application ever been a greater point of contention than in 2013.

On Tuesday, the PGA Tour issued a 678-word statement on why it was letting Vijay Singh off the hook despite admitting in January that he violated the tour’s drug policy by using a banned substance found in deer-antler spray.

On Wednesday, the USGA and R&A issued a joint 1,900-word statement detailing why Tiger Woods was not disqualified despite signing an incorrect scorecard after an illegal drop at the Masters Tournament three weeks ago.

And sometime before spring is over, golf’s governing bodies will issue a final verdict on anchored putting that has divided golfers and pitted various organizations in unseemly battles against each other.

Where have you gone Bobby Jones? Golf’s legions turn their lonely eyes to you.

The least-shocking news of the week was that the PGA Tour figured out a way to wriggle out of suspending one of its few active Hall of Famers for violating its drug policy. Commissioner Tim Finchem had the solution to the awkward situation fall right into his lap – and conveniently just before Players week commences in Singh’s adopted hometown.

Singh admitted in a Sports Illustrated story in January that he used a bit of modern-day snake oil called deer-antler spray. Unfortunately for Singh, deer-antler spray contains something called IGF-1 which is on the PGA Tour’s banned substance list. The tour had specifically warned all of its players to not use deer-antler spray in August 2011, yet Singh somehow missed that memo like Dustin Johnson missed the bunker bulletins posted on every wall in the Whistling Straits locker room.

“Under our doping code, if you admit – which is what he did, he admitted in an article that he had used this substance – it is tantamount to a positive test under our rules,” said Finchem. “We felt obligated to bring the action because it is technically a violation or was at that point in time.”

The tour issued sanctions against Singh on Feb. 19, and Singh appealed. Lo and behold, near the very end of that 45-day appeal window, the World Anti-Doping Agency declared last Friday that it no longer considers IGF-1 a prohibited substance.

“The bottom line is that given the change by WADA we are dropping the case against Mr. Singh,” Finchem said.

Voila, crisis averted. Please don’t try this at home next time you get a speeding ticket for going 45 in a 30-mph zone just because the county decided to up the speed limit before your court date. Let’s see how that works for you.

Now there’s the Tiger ruling that just won’t die. The prevailing consensus seems to be that even though all parties involved screwed up, Woods ultimately got exactly what he deserved if the rules officials had done their job properly in the first place. Masters competition chairman Fred Ridley used a loophole in the now complicated rule book to cover his own mistaken judgment after reviewing Woods’ improper drop after his ball bounced in the pond off the flagstick in Friday’s second round.

It turns out the tipster to Woods’ mistake was longtime respected rules official David Eger, who immediately recognized the problem at home on his TV and got word through his connections to Ridley. But Ridley looked at the replay and decided Woods did nothing wrong and never asked him about it before signing his card. Woods’ own detailed description of his improper drop, however, led to further inquiry the next day, two strokes were added and everybody moved on.

All that’s left is a prominent precedent in which all parties looked bad even though the USGA and R&A subsequently sanctioned the clean-up efforts.

“It wasn’t a shining Friday for Fred Ridley and he has at his disposal the best rules officials in golf,” Eger told The Charlotte Observer. “I’m sure he had more resources available to him than I had sitting at home with my digital recorder playing it back. For the head guy not to use all the resources available to him is disappointing.”

That blemish will eventually fade away, but the broiling brouhaha over the pending anchoring ruling may leave some long-standing scars. The PGA Tour and PGA of America have taken strong opposing stances to the proposed ban by the USGA and R&A. That led to some harsh words and literal finger-pointing under the tree at Augusta National between PGA of America president Ted Bishop and R&A chief executive Peter Dawson.

“The PGA of America knows my views about this, and I’m disappointed at the way that campaign was conducted,” Dawson said recently. “It put rule-making onto the negotiating table. The negotiating table is no place for rule-making to take place. Obviously, the feelings are strong. We shall have to see where it goes.”

Bishop isn’t backing down and threw more fuel on the fire by questioning the R&A’s – shall we say – manhood.

“I find that to be very curious and perplexing given the fact that the R&A has not been inclusive, as evidenced by their unwillingness to accept women as members to the R&A,” Bishop told Golf World magazine. “This is a much different approach than we have taken in America.”

So much drama. All this ensures there isn’t likely to be much peace restored in golf when the all-male R&A and The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers play host to PGA members in the Open Championship at Muirfield this summer.

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