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Golf's rulers avoid phone-in issues

Their effect on assessing penalties in one important instance will be diminished, but armchair rules officials are far from being eliminated -- and to the angst of many, the timing of their "rulings" will not be limited.

Golf's governing bodies on Tuesday announced a common-sense change to the Decisions in the rulebook starting Jan. 1: If HD television or slow-motion replays show a player's ball had moved, he will not be penalized if it was "not reasonably discernible to the naked eye at the time."

But the United States Golf Association and R&A stopped short of putting any sort of time limitation on called-in violations or rescinding the scorecard disqualification for violations brought to light after a player has attested his score.

Perhaps the rulers of the game can take up those issues next.

Tiger Woods and Padraig Harrington are among the high-profile cases of players penalized due to infractions many felt would not have been seen were it not for HD or slow-motion replays.

Woods, of course, was the subject of considerable conjecture at the BMW Championship in September, when he was hit with a two-stroke penalty after a PGA Tour Entertainment crew produced video that showed his ball moved as he removed debris behind the first green. Woods maintained the ball did not change position.

Harrington was disqualified at the 2011 Abu Dhabi Championship when HD video showed his ball moved; because it was brought to light after he signed his scorecard, Harrington was disqualified.

The governing bodies added Decision 33-7/4.5 in time for the 2012 season, which would have added the penalty to Harrington's card but saved him from disqualification. Now they have gone a step further with Decision 18/4; in Harrington's case -- and perhaps Woods' -- the penalty might not have been imposed at all.

Likely to the disappointment of PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem and Woods, the rules-makers didn't go so far as to put a limit on called-in infractions. Nor did they eliminate the archaic scorecard DQ, which means a player can be bounced from a tournament if one of these scenarios is spotted after a player signs his card.

At the Tour Championship in September, Woods called for some sort of time limit to be placed on such call-ins and Finchem acknowledged that those situations were "difficult and awkward." Among the suggestions was to have a score be final at the end of that day's play.

But the rules-makers said they would not be going that far.

"Disregarding relevant evidence of a breach of the Rules, obtained before the competition has ended, could lead to uncertainty and to unhealthy debate and disagreement about the fairness of a result that was influenced by an incorrect set of facts and failure to apply the Rules properly," the USGA and the R&A said in a statement. "If a player has breached a Rule, but this is not discovered until a later time, whether through video evidence or otherwise, such evidence must be considered so that the correct ruling can be applied and the player's score can be recorded accurately."

Fair enough.

But it is so arbitrary whether a player gets hit with a penalty or is disqualified. If a television viewer who sees an infraction in HD calls in before the player signs his card, the player adds the penalty strokes. If the viewer happened to watch a replay that night then called in, the player -- who cannot leave the scoring area without signing his card -- will have failed to add the penalty strokes in time. An incorrect scorecard then means disqualification.

That remains a puzzling and seemingly random administration of the rules.

If a penalty can be called in a day later, then it can be added to the score a day later too. Simple as that.

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