To DQ or Not DQ, That Is the Question
By Conor Nagle under European PGA Tour

*sigh* back to the range, then...

The debate surrounding Padraig Harrington’s disqualification from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship has, unsurprisingly, grown some legs since Friday morning’s awkward press conference, with most of the sport’s corps of journos coming to the conclusion that now is the time for change! But change what, exactly? No one’s entirely sure by the looks of things.

In an article titled ‘Padraig Harrington’s Disqualification Is a Farce‘, The Guardian’s Lawrence Donegan blazes a trail of righteous indignation all the way to the European Tour’s doorstep. Unfortunately, his sense of proportion seems to have left him at some point along the way. He begins by drawing an equivalence between the Harrington incident, which shall henceforth be referred to as Dimplegate; the disqualification of Camilo Villegas at the Tournament of Champions; and Elliot Saltman’s recent Tour sanction for cheating:

“The Byzantine Empire has nothing on the Rules of Golf. If that hasn’t been clear over the past few weeks, which have seen Camilo Villegas thrown out of a US PGA Tour event for flicking a divot away as his ball rolled towards it and Elliott Saltman banished to golfing Elba (incorrectly replacing ball on green by a less than half-an-inch equals a three-month ban and permanent character stain), then it surely is now after Padraig Harrington’s disqualification from the Abu Dhabi Championship.”

Sorry, what?

Elliott Saltman incorrectly replaced his ball at least five times in a single round– five times! It’s pretty safe to say that his infraction was neither inadvertent nor in good faith. If the evidence offered against him is accurate, he either cheated or is so fundamentally ignorant of the game’s rules as to hardly deserve the title of ‘professional’ in the first place. It’s the intention to cheat that stains the character, whether you move the ball a fraction of an inch or a mile in the attempt is largely immaterial.

Needs to spend less time working out, more time reading the rules

As for Villegas, who was caught on camera flicking a divot away from the likely site of his next shot: it may have been an impulsive, nearly unconscious action, but that hardly excuses him from punishment. That he was subsequently disqualified under rule 6-6d (signing an incorrect scorecard) might seem a little harsh, but at no point was he denied the information he needed to reach the right conclusion. He just didn’t know the rule.

All of this brings us to the crux of the Dimplegate issue. Harrington’s disqualification was based on evidence that he, the player, couldn’t, in any realistic sense, be expected to process and decide upon. He wasn’t done in by carelessness, ignorance (Villegas) or a catastrophic failure in character (Saltman); he was done in by the ability of a magnified HD replay to prove conclusively that what he thought was a harmless oscillation was, in fact, a largely imperceptible roll of the ball forward.

Dimplegate sets a dangerous precedent, not because a pedantic viewer– a ‘couch-bound vigilante’, to borrow Donegan’s term– could influence the outcome of a tournament, but because the situation demanded of Harrington a literally superhuman attention to detail. And let’s be honest: if it’s too much for Harrington to take in, it’s probably too much for everyone else.

Is this man to blame?

So, what’s to be done?

Over at Golfweek, Alistair Tait has some interesting quotes from tournament referee Andy McFee (the man who had the unfortunate task of informing Harrington of his disqualification). He’s not at all happy with how things have turned out:

“The problem I see is, the innocent penalty escalates very quickly from two strokes to disqualification… I don’t like that. I really don’t like that… We could still apply the relevant penalty but reopen the card. Instead of Padraig being disqualified … we would reopen the card, and he would still be playing in the golf tournament with the correct penalty.”

Sounds very sensible, doesn’t it? Graeme McDowell thinks so:

“I like the two-shot penalty, especially when a guy has unknowingly signed for a wrong score.”

But, as a close reading of G-Mac’s response makes clear, McFee’s suggestion isn’t without its own ambiguities. How, for example, does one differentiate between a player unwittingly signing for an incorrect scorecard (Villegas) and a player signing for an incorrect scorecard when they could not possibly know their ‘correct’ score (Harrington)?

The line separating the two is by no means clear and if the former was to be countenanced under this new rule, you’d essentially be removing a major incentive for the player to police his/her own game diligently.

For example: should Villegas have been allowed to change his scorecard after the round? Without the intervention of an outside agency (ie. couch potato man), all we know is that, left to his own devices, he wouldn’t have come clean himself. We can assume that’s because he didn’t know the rule and favour leniancy, but had Villegas (or a hypothetical cheating golfer) broken the rule knowingly, the outcome, under McFee’s compromise, would hardly act as a severe enough deterrent.

I’m not sure I’m comfortable with a scenario whereby it’s in a player’s competitive interest to remain silent and gamble on their rules infractions slipping past eagle-eyed DVR owners.

McFee’s compromise errs on the side of compassion. An admirable sentiment, maybe, but not one to build the rules of a professional sport on.