News & Opinion

Hey, Jon Rahm: Welcome to Tiger Woods’ world

Jon Rahm 2020 Memorial Tournament
Jon Rahm gets busted for a rules violation at the Memorial not only because he was guilty (he was) but more so because he was playing in front of the TV cameras, and they don't miss much.

Rahm’s misstep at the Memorial was just one violation among many that too often go undetected in golf, a game that falls far short of policing itself

The two-stroke penalty imposed on Jon Rahm at the conclusion of the Memorial last Sunday was, at face value, an innocuous occurrence. Rahm still won by three. And by any reasonable estimation, his ball did move when he soled his wedge behind it in some gnarly grass left of the 16th green. This wasn’t a difficult call. Obvious? No, but the high-definition videotape evidence was conclusive enough to justify the infraction.

From there, the incident becomes a theoretical puzzle, with a few missing pieces and others that don’t quite fit the big picture. Rahm got busted because he led the tournament; it’s as simple as that. If he’d been tied for eighth, five strokes off the lead at the time, CBS might not have even shown the chip on the telecast. The fact that it went in the hole would have increased the chances that we’d see it on replay at some point, but the super-slow-mo camera certainly wouldn’t have been running, nor would anyone in the production truck have bothered to closely examine Rahm’s pre-shot activity.

The world is a very different place when you’re in first place. More pressure. A lot more scrutiny. All eyeballs are upon you, and there’s likely some dude following you every step of the way with a $15,000 digital recording device on his shoulder. No need to run but nowhere to hide. Tiger Woods has spent his entire life in this public aquarium, which had a lot to do with why he was penalized two strokes for taking an illegal drop on the 15th hole of the 2013 Masters.

Former PGA Tour rules official David Eger noticed that Woods did not follow correct procedure after his third shot caromed off the flagstick and into the water. He saw this on television, not as someone on the grounds, working the tournament. A phone call or two later – actually, the following morning – Eldrick received the bad news. He was convicted of speeding because someone noticed him driving really fast while walking across a highway overpass.

Penalization is an obvious necessity. You break a rule, you pay the price. Detection? That is where things get a lot more complicated. Camp Ponte Vedra decided a few years ago no longer to field calls from TV viewers who swear they saw Tommy Tourpro improve his lie in some junk left of the 12th fairway. How is a crime reported by someone watching from home any different than a violation attributed solely to the telecast itself?

It clearly stands to reason that at least a dozen scenarios very similar to Rahm’s occurred last Sunday at Muirfield Village: a ball coming to rest in wavy Kentucky bluegrass, its position slightly unsettled as the player addresses it. Because Rahm had no intention of moving his ball as he prepared to strike the shot, there’s no reason to think the same violation didn’t happen at least five or six times over the duration of the final round.

CBS, ahem, was just doing its job. The best possible coverage and all that, but also a journalistic responsibility not to become a part of the story in any way, shape or form. What happened to Rahm amounts to a breakdown in the system, a loophole that really can’t be avoided. Guys who play well enough to get a lot of weekend TV time are subjected to a higher standard than all the chumps who missed the cut, or the 50 guys who woke up last Sunday with no chance of winning.

That makes things uneven. And when things are uneven, it affects the competitive element.

Can you imagine what would have happened if Rahm had continued to leak oil, then holed the chip to win by one, then found out he’d lost by a stroke? We all know the big Spaniard has quite a temper, leaving one to wonder whether there’d be anything left of Muirfield Village after he redecorated the place with a long iron.

Golf is a game of resolute honor and steadfast integrity, and it likes to remind people of that, but this notion that the sport polices itself is a bit of a crock. When’s the last time a tour pro called a penalty on himself? Perhaps there are occasions, but if they do exist, why haven’t we heard about them? When first place pays $1.6 million, you need lawmen on the premises. Rules are broken, almost always unwittingly and without malice, but that doesn’t mean illicit advantages aren’t attempted.

When former CBS analyst Peter Kostis joined me and colleague Mike Purkey on the Hawk & Purk podcast earlier this year, he said without a syllable of trepidation that he’d seen Patrick Reed commit rules violations in fairway bunkers on four separate occasions. Kostis probably has seen more live golf than anyone on earth. He’s a man of unquestionable credibility. A man with no apparent motive for exaggerating his observations, and perhaps most significantly, a man who made a handsome dime for a long time by dispensing truth in its least-filtered form.

Are there others out there? You’d have to be an ostrich to think it never happens. It’s a bit of a myth that those long-necked birds actually bury their heads in the sand, and probably just as much of a fallacy to believe the world’s best golfers never violate the game’s sacred law, regardless of intent. Half of those guys barely even know the Rules of Golf.

Jon Rahm violated one, and he paid the price. Those two strokes didn’t kill him. As for the messenger in related future situations, we need to consider all options. Wink, wink.

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