July 20, 2008

The Rules Are The Rules

Wie's disqualification highlights what we all know to be true: Golf is different, no one is watching you most of the time

It was tough, but Michelle faced the press and made a statement afterwards.

It was tough, but Michelle faced the press and made a statement afterwards.

Part of what makes sports fun is the predictability of the fans. Every time an umpire blows a call the talk shows are swamped the next day with irate folks demanding instant replay in baseball. And just as surely, every time a professional golfer is penalized for a scoring mistake there will be those who argue long and loud that in an EZ Pass world there is no longer a need for players to check and sign their scorecard. They would be wrong.

The latest scoring blunder in golf is made more emotional--and thus more complicated--by the fact it involved Michelle Wie, an 18-year-old box-office draw who appeared to be playing her way out of a two-year slump this past weekend at the LPGA State Farm Classic with rounds of 67-65-67. Wie was just one stroke off the 54-hole lead of Yani Tseng and seemed to have a good chance to win her first LPGA event and first tournament of any kind in five years.

But moments after finishing her third round Saturday at Panther Creek Country Club in Springfield, Ill., Wie was disqualified on a technicality--not signing her scorecard. We are already getting e-mails at Golf World saying this is an archaic rule. But why is it archaic? Who knows better than the player what he or she shot?

Golf, unlike most other sports, is not played in one place in front of everyone, but rather over 18 spread-out holes. Only the players know what really happened. Their honor has to be the final arbitrator. Everyone sees Manny Ramirez hit a home run or a sprinter run 100 meters in 9.5 seconds. That's not the case with golf.

To those who say in this age of computers all we have to do is believe what the electronic images tell us I say this: Every bit of data that goes into a computer is input by a human being. And I can tell you from experience that the number of times scoreboards or scoring computers at tournament venues have contained an error is countless. The only way to make sure mistakes do not happen is to make the player responsible for the account.

Here's what happened at the State Farm Classic:

• After finishing off a seven-under-par 65 on Friday, Wie proceeded to the roped-off scoring area and checked her card to make certain the correct scores were entered.

• Wie then left the scoring area without signing her card.

• A volunteer, realizing Wie had failed to sign the card, ran and caught up with her outside the scoring area. Wie signed the card.

• On Saturday, an LPGA official overheard a conversation about how Wie forgot to sign the card and then signed it outside the scoring area. Fearing the worst, the LPGA called the USGA to check the rule. It was deemed to be a violation of Rule 6-6b.

• Rule 6-6 b. -– Signing and Returning Score Card: "After completion of the round, the competitor should check his score for each hole and settle any doubtful points with the Committee. He must ensure that the marker or markers have signed the scorecard, sign the scorecard himself and return it to the Committee as soon as possible."

• The key part in this case is section 3 of the rule: "A player is deemed to have returned her scorecard to the Committee when she leaves the roped area of the scoring tent or leaves the scoring trailer."

• Since Wie had already begun her third round when the LPGA spoke with the USGA, it was decided to let her finish and then discuss the matter with her after the round to see if she disputed the version of events as understood by the LPGA. When she confirmed the account she was told she was disqualified.

I tracked down Paula Creamer, who was in France getting ready for this week's Evian Masters, and asked her if she thought the rule on which Wie was disqualified was a good one. Here's what she said:

"Definitely. That has always been an integral part of the game. All tournament golfers, amateurs as well as professionals, know that signing a correct scorecard is very important, as evidenced by having a special controlled area (scoring tent) to go to so distractions don't contribute to making a mistake.

"The volunteers manning this area are not rules officials and don't need to be, although they are extremely helpful. I wouldn't want someone else keeping my score without me being able to verify what I shot. There may be one too high or too low. It is part of the game and it is not too much too ask of a player to make sure their card is correct and sign it. It is unfortunate what happened to Michelle Wie, but I am sure she agrees with the ruling, as painful as it is."

Here are the kind of mistakes that can get made. When Creamer first turned pro she kept her score with a pencil. After one round, while going over her card, she noticed that a 3 had been recorded on a hole where she made a 2.

Turns out that when a scoring volunteer was making a photo copy of the scorecard to be sent to the media center the pencil marks were too light to copy. So the volunteer wrote over each score with a Sharpie, and in doing so accidentally turned a 2 into a 3. By checking the card, Creamer caught the mistake. Creamer's vigilance saved her a stroke. Wie's lack of vigilance cost her a possible victory.

Wie, who was in tears and understandably so, was at a loss to explain the mental blunder:

"You know, it's just really unfortunate," she said in a statement after which she declined to answer questions. "I don't know what happened to me. Usually, I sign it first. But I forgot to sign the scorecard. Unfortunately, I left the tent area, and a couple of the scorers went after me and I signed it and I turned it in. And I thought it would be OK.

"But it was an honest mistake. I don't know why or how it happened. But, you know, I just forgot to sign it. It was really unfortunate, but hopefully it won't happen again. It was a good learning experience."

To those who decry the disqualification of Wie there is this one last point to make: While perhaps too much is made of it at times-–cheating undoubtedly has occurred-–golf is the only sport where players turn themselves in. Creamer once disqualified herself for a rules violation--the day after the tournament ended when she realized she had violated the rules.

What happened to Wie was unfortunate, and it was sad given how much she has struggled over the last two years. But it was within the rules under which all of the players compete. Golf is different than other sports. The only person who really knows what happened is the player. That's a responsibility each player has to take seriously, and one that must be cherished. It's a big part of what makes golf the game it is: A test not just of skill, but also of character.

If Manny Ramirez hits a home run and the umpire incorrectly says it was a foul ball Ramirez has no opportunity to correct the mistake. Golfers have that right, and with the right comes certain responsibility. Is it really too much to ask of a player that they verify and sign their scorecard? Hey, maybe we should just give them all putts inside the leather.