Padraig Harrington’s “harsh” disqualification from the Abu Dhabi Championship could lead to a change in the rules of golf or another addition to the 600-page Decisions book.
Just days after Elliot Saltman was handed a three month ban for repeatedly replacing his ball closer to the hole in a Challenge Tour event last year, Harrington was ousted from his opening tournament of the season for inadvertently nudging his ball a fraction of a centimetre closer when replacing it on the green.
It took slow motion replays to detect the change in the ball’s position and even the referee who disqualified the Dubliner for signing for a wrong score admitted that the punishment didn’t fit the crime.
Harrington simply took his punishment on the chin, though he admitted: “It seems harsh - it feels harsh.”
According to Harrington, replays showed that he accidentally nudged his ball three dimples forward but it rolled only a dimple and a half back - a change that is imperceptible to the naked eye and one which the player himself did not detect.
Had he known, he could have replaced his ball without penalty but while he realised he had brushed against his ball with his finger, Harrington did not think it hand changed position in any way and continued playing.
An email by a viewer prompted referee Andy McFee to review footage of the incident, leading to Harrington’s disqualification for signing for an incorrect score. By failing to replace his ball, he incurred a two stroke penalty and should have taken a five instead of a par three at the seventh, his 16th hole, making his first round 65 a 67.
Refusing to blame anyone but himself, Harrington explained that he accepted the decision because “the rule is there for other and bigger reasons and we love the fact that we have the best game in the world when it comes to the rules.
“It’s an absolute game of honour and even if a player is seen to breach rules and can’t be caught out by the officials he would be ostracised and have a very lonely life on the Tour. It gives us the higher ground, let’s say.
“It’s a dimple and a half today, half an inch tomorrow, an inch next week and then five inches the following week. If it’s moved, it’s moved - that’s the fact of the matter and you can’t argue over how much it’s moved.”
The Press Association reported that the R&A is considering a change to the rules on foot of some recent high profile transgressions:
Grant Moir, Rules of Golf director for the R&A, added: “Obviously in the light of this and what happened to Camilo Villegas (the Colombian was another victim of ‘trial by television’ in Hawaii earlier this month) the significance of the disqualification penalty has been brought sharply back into focus.
“Certainly with the introduction of every-increasing scrutiny and enhanced images there is a fresh impetus to have a look at it and see if the rules are still appropriate.
“The fundamental principle is that it is the responsibility of a player to turn in an accurate score and eroding that principle would be a significant move.
“But we have looked at the possibility of introducing a decision to deal with a situation where enhanced images show a breach of the rules that even the player could not know about.”
McFee revealed that the European Tour has tried to get the R&A to make a change in the rules in the past but to no avail. In an ironic co-incidence, Harrington was appointed as an ambassador by the R&A exactly a week ago.
Commenting on Harrington, McFee said: “It is very harsh - the punishment does not really fit what the player has done. That’s unfortunate. It’s something the PGA Tour and ourselves have raised with the governing bodies and as yet we have not put forward an argument that has convinced them.”
He added:”The way I see it, the innocent penalty escalates very quickly from two strokes to disqualification when a player signs his card. I really don’t like that…. It’s just horrible that in these circumstances, I don’t think there’s anything else Padraig could have done. Technology has done it for us.”
TV viewers have been phoning in for years to report perceived rules transgressions but the Trial by Television era has truly arrived now with HD and even 3D available.
Unlike many players, Harrington has no problem with the idea of armchair rules officials despite the fact that only a minority of players are subject to their scrutiny.
“I want to be on television. I want to have those ten million people watching me because that means I’m doing well. If I’m not on television and nobody is watching, I’m missing the cut.
“At the end of the day, like anything else, there’s a little bit of extra responsibility not just with the rules but your etiquette, everything like that. When you get up the ranks and you get on that television, you have responsibilities and you’re playing with a bigger audience and there’s more distractions and there’s more things going on.
“And if you want to be the best player in the world, if you want to be one of those players, you have to accept that there is the little bit of extra responsibility as you become a better player, and you’d better embrace it.
“The fact that the camera isn’t on the guy who is down the field doesn’t make any difference. As he becomes a better player, it will be on him. There’s no competitive edge, let’s say in, that sense. And it’s fair enough. That’s the responsibility of any player doing what it takes.”
Harrington was just a shot off the lead overnight but an Irish player could still take the title with Graeme McDowell, Gareth Maybin and Rory McIlroy all within striking distance of Germany’s Martin Kaymer.
The US PGA champion and European No 1, who can go to world No 2 with a successful title defence, fired a seven under 65 in wet afternoon conditions to lead by three shots from Charl Schwartzel on 12 under with McDowell a further shot back after a grinding 70.
Maybin and McIlroy shot matching 67s to share seventh place on six under with Damien McGrane the only other Irish player to make the cut on level par after a 73 left him tied for 62nd with the likes of world No 1 Lee Westwood, who struggled to a 75.
Darren Clarke (75) and Paul McGinley (76) missed out by two shots with Michael Hoey (76) and Peter Lawrie (76) well outside the mark on seven and eight over respectively.
Kaymer didn’t make a bogey in his round and like McDowell, who escaped in a similar trial by TV case on Thursday, he expressed his sympathy for Harrington.
“It’s a very unfortunate thing, obviously,” he said. “But that’s how it is. The way he played I think he would have had a chance to win, so he’s a little unlucky there.”
McDowell, who was adjudged not to have moved his ball despite feathering it at address on the 18th in the first round, told Sky: “I obviously feel for him. I was in a similar position myself on 18 yesterday. Padraig is not trying to gain any advantage by what he is doing.
“The rules of golf are there for everyone’s protection obviously but it is a very tight rule I have got to say. Ninety-five percent of the field get away with that because there is no TV evidence. It is one of the things with the high-def and slow-mo cameras nowadays you can see every dimple in the golf ball. It is a harsh rule and just one of those things unfortunately. You feel for players.”
According to The Guardian, McDowell also called the TV viewers who phone in “anoraks” with too much time on their hands.
One player who did not hold back in his criticism of the rules was Ian Poulter, who missed the cut by a stroke after following his opening 75 with a 70.
The Englishman told his more than one million Twitter followers: “Think I should set up a game of tiddlywinks, sell seats Harrington vs Myself set up a web cam & get people to referee by phone in.”