Pristine image threatened by rancour and division

Anchored putters, dodgy drops and armchair referees. Drugs. Top players behaving like kids in the schoolyard.

It’s not a great time to be a paid official running one of the world’s great golf organisations.

Whether you are the R&A, the USGA, the PGA Tour or the Chairman of Augusta National, it has been a month for spin doctoring and rhetorical obfuscation when it comes to the major issues troubling a game that’s prided itself on its whiter than white image.

With the 2016 Olympic Games lurking on the horizon, the entire Vijay Singh fiasco over deer antler spray and his subsequent decision to sue the PGA Tour for “reckless administration and implementation” of its anti-doping programme is another disturbing chapter in a game that is being dragged, kicking and screaming, into the 21st century.

The battle for control of the rules of the game is another major issue, with the R&A and the USGA facing opposition from the PGA of America and the PGA Tour over the proposed ban on anchoring a putter to your body from January 2016.

With the spectre of bifurcation looming, there is real danger of a split in the administration of the rules.

The tension between St Andrews and PGA of America HQ over the anchoring debate was palpable at the Masters where Golf Digest contributor and popular blogger Geoff Shackelford reported on the behind the scenes bickering of the game’s power brokers.

“After [new PGA of America president Ted] Bishop tried to initiate a friendly conversation with R&A chief executive Peter Dawson by contending his organisation’s position was ‘nothing personal’, Dawson replied that it was ‘very personal’ to the R&A and that the damage done by the PGA of America’s opposition had made the fissure between the organisations ‘irreparable’. Rather than respond, Bishop walked away.”

Dawson is furious the two biggest golfing bodies in the US have taken their negotiating stance public and intruded on territory that is the domain of the R&A and the USGA.

“The negotiating table is no place for rule-making to take place,” Dawson said. “Obviously, the feelings are strong. We shall have to see where it goes.”

Whatever about rule-making becoming a negotiating tool, refereeing has also entered the public domain with the number of armchair rules cases multiplying by the year.

With many rank and file golfers already disappointed by the way the Tiger Woods drop situation was handled at the Masters, the game needs clear-cut, unified decision making.

The R&A will be “going to war” on the thorny issue of slow play, as one official described it to me, during the British Open next month.

No doubt that will lead to more calls to TV stations from eagle-eyed viewers in the era of tabloid golf television where Sky pundits point out possible rules infractions and instigate investigations by Tour officials.

Sergio Garcia, who did little for the image of the game by ripping Woods on television at Sawgrass on Sunday morning, was cleared by the PGA Tour of any wrongdoing when replacing his ball on a green in the Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow just over a week ago.

Exactly a week later and it was Woods in the dock once more in another trial by television over the exact point of entry of his hook into a lateral water hazard at the 14th hole on Sunday.

The PGA Tour was forced to issue a statement on the incident, exonerating him from any wrongdoing, yet the conspiracy theorists, rightly or wrongly, are out in force. Woods’ case was not helped by NBC’s Johnny Miller, who described his drop as being “really, really borderline”.

It was up to Woods, his playing partner Casey Wittenberg and the latter’s caddie to agree on the point of entry, which they did. Still, the PGA Tour had to issue a statement on the incident: “If that point later proves to be a wrong point [through television or other means], the player is not penalised by Rule 26-1 given the fact that a competitor would risk incurring a penalty every time he makes an honest judgement as to the point where his ball last crosses a water-hazard margin and that judgement subsequently proves incorrect.”

Golf, especially the PGA Tour, has worked hard to compete with the huge markets that are American football and basketball yet the game’s popularity, as evidenced by its re-admission to the Olympics, has come at a price.

No longer the preserve of tweed-clad gentlemen, the game is playing catch-up with the rest of the 21st century’s major sports. Proper drugs testing, an end to all-male clubs at venues that host the game’s major championships are issues that are as crucial as a unified set of rules.

Getting your major stars to behave like grown men might be too much to ask. If it is, the game has far bigger problems than we ever imagined.


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