Last month at the MCI Classic, Jesper Parnevik was embroiled in the second most controversial glove incident of the '90s. Parnevik, you will recall, removed his glove and used it to brush sand off the line of his putt, oblivious to Rule 16-1A/1, which forbids such an action. When a spectator reported the violation, Parnevik was DQ'd, and in a classy move he vented his frustration by firing his caddie, who had confirmed the rules breach.
Two weeks ago Seve Ballesteros lit up the switchboard at the Spanish Open when he took a highly questionable drop on a lost ball. The plaintive wailing of the TV viewers was to no avail, however, as none of the on-site rules officials had the guts to disqualify a fading national hero like Ballesteros, whose company happened to be promoting the event.
Sadly, the behavior of the Good Samaritan fans, not the scofflaw players, has been on trial in the wake of these incidents. "We're not excited about people who call in, but if they're right, we have to act on it," said one myopic PGA Tour official.
I've never understood the rationale for disparaging whistle-blowing fans as no-life snitches. In the wake of the famous incident in 1987 when Craig Stadler was disqualified for kneeling on a towel in San Diego, Frank Hannigan, then the USGA executive director and, as always, its chief know-it-all, dismissed the good folks who pointed out the Walrus's violation as "rules freaks." When the head of the USGA is clowning on fans for being too knowledgeable, we've entered Bizarro World.
Here's what I think: Fans phoning in rules violations is one of the coolest things about golf, and the fact that a TV viewer has the ability to affect the outcome of an event should be celebrated, not belittled. In what other sport are the spectators so empowered? What other game is so interactive with its audience?
In golf, fans are part of the action, not peripheral to it, and the obsessive-compulsive rules wonks among us ensure that unlike the other sports, golf will never become a game in which anything is legal if you can get away with it. Without besmirching the credibility of pro golfers, is there any doubt that one thing that keeps them in line is the knowledge that someone, somewhere, is always watching?
Mike Shea, the PGA Tour's senior rules official, has been an infractions bloodhound for nearly two decades, and he has fielded thousands of calls about possible violations. "There are two basic types of callers," Shea says. "The majority are sincere fans who have seen a situation and are genuinely curious as to the proper interpretation. Then there are those people who think they know more about the rules than anyone else and can't wait to catch someone. Sometimes you can hear the excitement in their voices."
God bless 'em all, I say. Keep those calls coming. The tours should encourage TV viewers and spectators to speak out. Instead of holding up QUIET, PLEASE signs, marshals should put these phone numbers on their paddles: USGA (908) 234-2300; PGA Tour (904) 285-3700; LPGA (904) 274-6200. A fan at home, wedged between the cushions of his couch with a brewski in one hand and the Rules of Golf in the other, can also dial information to get the number of the host course, where personnel are always instructed to patch such calls through to the respective tour's mobile offices.
Don't think it's only a lunatic fringe that reports rules gaffes. After Tiger Woods's boulder-rolling incident during January's Phoenix Open, the USGA was inundated by queries. "It was into the thousands," says Marty Parkes, the USGA's director of communications. E-mail was the most popular medium, but those messages were channeled through the USGA's Web site because fans couldn't reach out and touch the right people, like, say, Tom Meeks, the USGA's director of rules and competition. "Please don't print Tom's personal E-mail address," Parkes says. "He'll be swamped. You know how those people are."
No worries, Marty, we wouldn't think of telling anyone that all USGA E-mail addresses are composed of the first letter of an employee's first name followed by their full last name @usga.org.