Called-in report of Villegas' violation prompts spirited debate over rules

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Camilo Villegas handled his disqualification with grace, but TV viewer Dave Andrews found that his call to PGA Tour officials was only the beginning of the biggest golf story of the young season.
Doug Ferguson
Associated Press


Published: Sunday, January 09, 2011 | 10:18 p.m.

Dave Andrews says he is not a snitch.

He’s not an expert on the rules of golf, either.

Andrews is a self-described golf nut who plays about 150 rounds a year. He happened to be watching the opening round of the Hyundai Tournament of Champions with a couple of friends in Daytona Beach, Fla., when they saw Camilo Villegas flick away some loose pieces of grass as his ball was rolling down a slope back toward his divot on the 15th hole at Kapalua.

Something didn’t look right, and so began an inquiry that made its way across the Pacific.

“I guess it was me who caused all this uproar,” Andrews said by phone.

Andrews knows enough of the rules from the golf he plays, including club competitions in New Hampshire. But he doesn’t keep a copy of the rules book with him, so when one of his friends thought Villegas had done something wrong, they went to the USGA’s website and found Rule 23-1: “When a ball is in motion, a loose impediment that might influence the movement of the ball must not be removed.”

“By then, he probably had a half-hour left to play before he signs his card,” Andrews said.

A television viewer calling in an apparent rules violation is nothing new, and neither is the outrage that follows over a fan being allowed to report a violation. What was unique about this case was instead of a phone call, the inquiry was through Twitter.

The PGA Tour doesn’t mind fans contacting them, although rules official Jon Brendle said 80 percent of the “tons of calls we get” turn out to be nothing. Even so, the tour’s job is to protect the field, and if there’s a violation pointed out by anyone -- another player, spectator or someone in front of the TV -- the officials check it out.

Comparisons with the NBA or NFL are pointless because in golf, the player is responsible for his or her own penalties.

“Anytime a call comes in, we’ve always gone on it,” Brendle said. “I have to react. That’s my job. That’s what the game is all about -- if you break a rule, it’s all about the penalty. The sad thing is if the call comes in after the fact. Why didn’t you call in earlier so at least you can save the guy from disqualification?”

In most cases -- Villegas was no different -- the violation is learned after players sign their card and they are disqualified for signing for an incorrect score.

Andrews gave it his best shot.

He didn’t know who to call, and he’s not alone in that. Bubba Watson and Ian Poulter were among players who said they wouldn’t know who to call if they saw an infraction. Andrews went to Twitter, sending tweets about what he saw to the PGA Tour (including its website producer) and The Golf Channel. He also found a comment page on the tour’s website.

Andrews, who spent 30 years as a television reporter, has written a golf novel and does some freelance writing for a blog. He contacted another blogger, Ryan Ballengee, who had not seen the incident. Ballengee went to his DVR, agreed with Andrews on the violation, and sent an e-mail to John Bush, the PGA Tour media official at Kapalua.

By this time, the round was over and Villegas had long signed his card.

“When I wrote in, it was with the best of intentions,” Andrews said. “I’m no stickler on the rules. I was stunned that nobody had seen it before and decided to write in a tweet. I thought the Golf Channel would have seen it, because they showed a replay. I guess I can understand how it does slip someone’s attention.”

Villegas handled the disqualification with grace, just as Andrews handled the comments that followed. He saw plenty of activity on Twitter calling him a snitch.

Poulter tweeted: “An armchair official tweeted in to get Camilo DQ, what is wrong with people have they got nothing better to do.” He followed that with: “Yes, the rules r the rules it was a mistake on Camilo’s behalf, he didn’t know he had done wrong, but people calling in, no 1 likes a snitch.”

The broader issue is how well players know their own rules.

“On a scale of 1 to 10, probably a 5,” Rocco Mediate said. “And that’s being nice.”

Poulter is emotional when it comes to the rules because he was penalized in Hong Kong last year in a playoff when the ball slipped from his hand and nudged his ball marker.

“It’s harsh,” he said. “It’s another one of those rules that has come again which someone had to phone in—a tweet that came in, however it works. Whether a phone in or a tweet, it’s people sitting at home with a rules book out who have nothing better to do.”

Still, Poulter acknowledged that Villegas “infringed on the rules, so he’s been penalized.”

The incident has renewed talk of eliminating the scorecard rule, and simply assessing the two-stroke penalty before the close of competition. That would require a change by the governing bodies.

Brendle remembers the first time he handled a TV viewer reporting an infraction, in 1991 at Doral. Paul Azinger shot a 65 in the second round, one off the lead, when he was disqualified because of a shot he played in the opening round. Standing inside a hazard, he pawed with his left foot to get a solid stance and play his approach into the 18th.

A club professional in Colorado had been working that day, taped the coverage and was watching the next morning when he saw the violation of Rule 13-4 (moving a loose impediment in a hazard -- rocks had shifted).

“It was not a bad decision, it was the correct decision,” Azinger said that day. “It’s just hard to swallow.”

Whether it’s a phone call or Twitter, that much hasn’t changed.




I happened to be watching the T of C live with my wife as this debacle with Villegas was occurring. We were walking out the door and I said, "Well, that's a penalty. Looks like he's gonna make a 10 on this hole." My wife asked why and I explained that a rule of golf says you can't remove loose impediments when a ball is in motion. She thought it was a dumb rule. I didn't think any more about it until I saw he was subsequently DQ'd.

Perhaps her all encompassing "dumb rule" comment isn't far from the truth. I have long since felt that Rule 23-1 needs to be changed. Changed for the simple fact that The Rules of Golf are designed to be Rules. Rules with definitions. Rules with Decisions. They are NOT open to interpretation. This rule is dramatically open to interpretation because of one single word..."MIGHT." “When a ball is in motion, a loose impediment that MIGHT influence the movement of the ball must not be removed.”

Who determines MIGHT? To what extent is MIGHT deemed to be possibly...and from there to probable? In Villegas' case, the ball in motion NEVER did touch the area where he removed the loose impediments. In his case, it was his divot...the sod he layed over on the shot. But because it MIGHT have, he was assessed the penalty and subsequent DQ for signing an incorrect scorecard.

This now opens a broad spectrum of concern that the R&A must address immediately. The word MIGHT, in its purest definition, indicates "theoretical possibility." In other words, "the condition exists." The Rules of Golf DO NOT indicate the degree to which this possibility or probability exists. Therefore, by the absence of such a measure, ANY, I repeat ANY possibility that a loose impediment might interfere with a ball in motion shall be deemed a penalty.

I have laid out the aforementioned information for a reason. Because of this one single rule and its wording, we now have the following condition. Read closely. "ANY PLAYER WHO REPAIRS A DIVOT...PICKS UP LOOSE SOD...FLICKS AWAY GRASS...OR MAKES A PRACTICE SWING AT ANY LOOSE GRASS, SAND, BRUSH, ROCKS, STICKS, OR THE LIKE WHILE A BALL IS IN MOTION IS IN VIOLATION OF RULE 23-1"

I know. You might be chuckling at what I am saying. But in the pure interpretation of this rule...where no interpretation should exist...this is what we are left with.

A player hits a shot towards a green some 150 yards away. Granted, no one in their right mind would believe that his divot could interfere with that ball in motion. But as inifinitely small as the possibility is for that player to repair that divot while his ball is in motion and have that ball contact it, THE POSSIBILITY DOES IN FACT EXIST. THEREFORE ANY AND ALL TOUR PLAYERS REPAIRING DIVOTS WHILE THEIR BALL IS IN MOTION ARE IN BREACH OF RULE 23-1.

A much greater possibility for this rule to be violated exists at Augusta. All too many times balls being pitched onto greens roll off false fronts back towards the player's general direction. Sorry guys. No more stomping on divots or kicking them with your heels to fix them...or digging them in an attempt to fix them with your clubhead. They are all violations of Rule 23-1 because as I stated..."might" indicates a possibility....and that is any and ALL possibilities no matter how remotely small they may be.

This rule is so broad in its interpretation it can even be taken a step further. Player A is hitting a pitch shot. Player B is preparing to hit next from behind the green. Player B bends over and pulls away some pine needles from around his ball as Player A strikes his shot. Player A's ball rolls through the green towards Player B. By the way Rule 23-1 reads, Player B is in violation of Rule 23-1 and should be assessed a two stroke penalty.

Rule 23-1 makes no statement regarding "intent" and that is the missing part of this rule. It also makes it a rule violation based solely on an unknown future event. In addition, it makes no reference to who's ball is in motion. So, R & A? What is it going to be? Fix the rule? Rewrite the rule?

Brad Patterson
PGA Professional


I like Ian Poulter and I really like wife is Colombian.
And yet, Ian, please...LIFE is harsh! "Armchair referee's" and viewers with nothing else to do?

My dear Mr. Poulter, how on earth can the best practitioners of a game, participants who make millions and millions each year (hey, the money is there, you deserve to make what you win) due to us viewers with nothing else to do & armchair refs...we make it possible for you to earn a $1,000,000.00 paycheck to frolick in a garden for a weekend...HOW CAN Y'ALL not HAVE THE RULES MEMORIZED, verbatim, page by page, word for word?
How can you NOT know the rules?????????
I'm sorry about your disappointing incident with the ball marker, is harsh, why should the perfect simulation game for life not deliver a harsh moment from time to time. You kids are so outrageously pampered as it is. To imagine, someone with such God given talent as you and your playing colleagues, cannot possibly tolerate having to hit a ball from a muddy lie?
You boys cry and whimper like babies for way too many reasons.
Be a man, take the harsh moments your tournament life deals, go pick up $50,000.00, $100,000.00 or even $1,000,000.00 nesx weekend and deal with it. If you all knew every rule, like you should, Camillo would NOT have done what he did. If you saw him do it while playing with him, would you not say something? Your caddy? Someone behind the ropes? Should we all stay quiet when practitioners of this great game don't even know every detail of every rule?
Mr. Poulter...pllllllllleeeeeeeease!!!!!!!!!