We’ve got to have some rules. This is how we organize a civil society. But let’s be frank: Golf’s fetish for rules has long since crossed the lateral hazard into moral depravity. Two minutes into reading the official USGA rule book, it is immediately apparent that you’ve stumbled into the deep rough of regulatory porn. Take this, from an arbitrary page: “The player and opponent agree to treat the next stroke, a hole or the match as tied (but this is allowed only after at least one of the players has made a stroke to begin the hole).” Random match-play protocol or an excerpt from a Henry Miller novel? Here’s another head-scratcher: “Rule 10.1a: You must fairly strike at the ball with the head of the club such that there is only momentary contact between the club and the ball and you must not push, scrape or scoop the ball.” OK, Caligula! No scraping or scooping. I’m uncomfortable.
It’s been five years since golf’s organizing bodies finally abolished perhaps the strangest manifestation of this aberrant obsession: the practice of allowing television viewers to call in rules violations and then having officials make actual decisions based on them that would cost players actual penalty shots in actual tournaments. I don’t think we talk enough about how surreal this was. Can you imagine an NFL playoff game where a referee misses a spot and some guy from Akron, Ohio, phones in to a producer and is like, “Umpire missed the spot!” And the producer relays this to the referee, who informs both the competitors and the audience that word has come down from Akron and now everything is different, and we have to go back several plays to correct this? It is an idea so spectacularly avant-garde that it should come with its own Glenn Branca soundtrack.
Let us indulge in a misty, watercolor memory of how insane we were—the final straw before call-ins were banned. Dateline: the 2017 ANA Inspiration, the first LPGA major on the calendar. Lexi Thompson is three shots clear in the final round when a TV viewer makes the observation that she had improperly replaced her golf ball on the green during the third round. Why this tireless rules sleuth is watching the previous day’s events is unclear, but the Tour promptly jumps into action, alerting the network to this apparent violation. In the tournament’s final hour, Thompson is informed that she’s been penalized two strokes for the misplaced mark and an additional two for signing an incorrect scorecard, this last bit a particularly Kafkaesque touch. “Is this a joke?” she reasonably inquires. It is not. Thompson rallies from what is suddenly a deficit, but eventually succumbs to So Yeon Ryu in a playoff.
Wow! Let’s unpack this. One of the game’s brightest young stars is playing the final round of a major tournament. She’s winning handily. Somewhere, a phone rings. Somebody—who?—at the Golf Channel answers.
We don’t have the full record, so now we are in the realm of conjecture. But perhaps the conversation goes like this:
Golf Channel:Hello! How may I directyour call?
Random caller [picture Christopher Walken in Biloxi Blues]:Hey. I’m watching the third round from yesterday. Lexi Thompson mismarked her ball on 17.
Golf Channel:Oh my! Are you sure? Because that would have had to have gone unnoticed by Lexi herself, her playing partner, multiple on-site rules officials, the tournament broadcasters and an untold number of assembled media members.
Random caller [practically growling]: Very sure. I’ve watched it several times. I just keep watching it and watching it.
Golf Channel:Well, since you’re VERY sure, I will take this straight to the top! Thank you, kind sir, for watching the 17th hole from yesterday so carefully!
Random caller [swigs from a bottle of NyQuil]:I keep looking at it. Over and over. She puts the ball down in the wrong spot.Over and over.
Now, a rational actor in the mainstream contemporary-sports complex might engage in the following internal dialogue: “Hey! We’re a real sport! We have sponsors, network television contracts, premier athletes and on-site protocols. We can’t penalize anyone, let alone one of our great stars, on the rantings of a particular viewer with magical thinking and, potentially, a marginal personality disorder just because they called in a fit of pique. How did they get the number, anyway?”
But golf is not a rational actor. This is, in a complicated sense, a part of its wooly appeal. Compared with the buttoned-up NFL or the on-message NBA, the overarching inability of golf to find its ass from first base is a feature, not a bug. See: the escalating miasma of the FedExCup, which becomes more impenetrably byzantine with every effort to make it more mainstream. See also: Professor Phil Mickelson on the topics of geopolitics and human rights.
Here’s how our dissociative glory days finally ended. In 2017, the USGA and the R&A convened a working group to discuss the issue, which is the sort of review body that the U.S. Congress periodically consecrates to make certain that nothing ever, ever changes. Incredibly, the assembled brain trust was able to conclude that the specter of random weirdos deciding the fate of their product was counterproductive. New Decision 34-3/10 stipulates that a player cannot be penalized when video evidence reveals facts that “could not reasonably have been seen with the naked eye.”
Do I miss the call-in days? Only a little. Mostly I’m just gratified I was there to experience it in all of its bad-trip glory. Someday I’ll tell my kids about it, and I know exactly what they’ll say in their space-age wisdom: “What’s a phone?”