News & Opinion

Could Tour ditch blinders and crack whip?

Note to PGA Tour: Take a cue from the Kentucky Derby. Don’t fear the penalty.

A thoroughbred named Maximum Security crossed the finish line first Saturday at the 145th Run for the Roses, but a bold decision by race officials nullified the apparent victory. It was determined that Maximum Security had swerved into the path of two other horses, thereby impeding their progress. As a result, the horse with the fastest time was relegated to 17th place and a 65-1 shot, Country House, was declared the winner.

The episode prompted me to wonder: How would the PGA Tour handle similar circumstances? If a marquee name were in contention during Round 4 of, say, the Tour Championship, playing in the third-to-last or penultimate group and thought to be in violation of the Tour’s pace-of-play regulation, would said player be penalized? After all, slow play impacts everyone in the field. It’s a momentum-killer.

Or what if Tour officials received word on a Friday that a marquee player had failed a drug test? If that player were among the leaders heading into the weekend, would he immediately be suspended?

Given the Tour’s track record on matters of slow play and doping, the answer to both questions is probably no. Hyper-sensitive about its image, the Tour is loath to create controversy. Problem is, what’s good for the PGA Tour isn’t necessarily good for golf.

It’s hardly news that the Tour turns a blind eye on slow play. It is immune to criticism of behavior that causes five-hour rounds: interminable pre-shot routines; indecisive club selection; reading and re-reading putts from multiple angles. The example set on Tour contributes to recreational slow play, an oft-cited contributing factor to a prolonged decline in golf participation in America.

No question, the stakes are higher for professional golfers. But that’s no excuse for condoning a slowpoke’s disrespect for his playing competitors and everyone behind him.

The Derby stakes were even higher. As the crowd of 150,729 at Churchill Downs and a global TV audience awaited a verdict on the official outcome, the stewards weighed their decision knowing that the credibility of horse racing, already in dire straits, was on the line.

The “sport of kings” has been in decline in America for nearly 20 years. According to The New York Times, $11 billion was bet on races last year, down from $15 billion in 2002. Last year, 19,925 foals were registered as thoroughbred racehorses, down from nearly 33,000 in 2002. The website horseracingwrongs.com, which advocates banning horse racing altogether, lists 37 race tracks (thoroughbred, harness and quarter horse) in the U.S. that have closed since 2000.

Pressure is mounting for more stringent regulation of the sport after a recent spate of fatal breakdowns during races. Citing the Jockey Club’s Equine Injury Database, the Times reported an average of 10 horses a week died at American racetracks in 2018, “a fatality rate that is anywhere from two and a half to five times greater than in the rest of the racing world.”

During an excruciating 22-minute wait for the stewards’ decision at Churchill Downs, Bill Mott, trainer of presumed second-place Country House, told reporters, “If it were a [low level] maiden claiming race on a weekday, the winner would come down.” His message was clear: Ignore the peripheral circumstances and do the right thing.

It’s hard to imagine the pressure the Derby stewards were under.

In football, basketball, baseball, hockey – sports in which dozens of officiating calls are made during the course of a game – it’s the sum of those calls that affect the outcome. Controversial calls in the waning minutes may draw intense scrutiny and ignite furious debate, but fouls earlier in the game, flagged or undetected, set the table for the closing minutes. In other words, the cumulative effect of decisions made by officials invariably comes out in the wash.

Not so in horse racing. This is two minutes of split-second decision making by diminutive riders aboard skittish 1,100-pound animals – sprinting 40 mph, just inches from their rivals – that are bred and trained to strive for the finish line. There is no opportunity to repeat third down, insert a pinch hitter, go to a sixth man, or change lines on the fly. If racing’s referees – the stewards – detect a foul or uphold a jockey’s objection, that one decision, and that decision only, changes the outcome.

Golf presents an entirely different set of circumstances. Officials roam a 150-acre field of play for the purpose of interpreting rules and explaining procedures. They operate on the tradition that golfers can be trusted to police themselves. Golf rules officials are on hand not to scrutinize the competition but rather to mediate misunderstandings.

Not to suggest that cheating is rampant on Tour, but gone are the days when Bobby Jones was commended for calling a penalty on himself and responded, “You might as well praise a man for not robbing a bank.” It’s only human nature that athletes who play, or aspire to play, golf for a living are more vulnerable to the temptation of bending rules, considering the progressive monetary rewards associated with earning a college scholarship, winning at the college level, qualifying for developmental tours, advancing to the PGA Tour, keeping exempt status once there, and accumulating enough Official World Golf Ranking points to be set for life.

No doubt the day will come when the Tour faces a rule challenge the magnitude of the Derby’s. Will it protect its squeaky-clean brand, or do the right thing for the game at large?

Dave Seanor has been a sports journalist since 1975, including a 13-year stint as editor of Golfweek magazine. He has covered golf in 25 countries, including the 2016 Olympics in Brazil. Email: daveseanor@gmail.com