Golf spectators are quickly turning into a multifaceted Big Brother seeing-eye, and the world's best players are under the microscope.
In his second round of the Abu Dhabi Championship, Tiger Woods hit a wayward tee shot on hole no. 5 into a patch of vines off the fairway. The ball became embedded in the turf, seemingly unplayable. After arriving to his ball, he called over playing partner Martin Kaymer to get his opinion on the lie and whether Tiger was entitled to a free drop.
After a short conference, the two men agreed that Tiger was allowed the drop. Woods took relief and continued his round to the tune of a one-over-par 73. In his mind, Woods barely made the cut to survive for the weekend.
Meanwhile -- and completely unbeknownst to Woods -- two reporters in the gallery had witnessed the exchange and reported it to Tour chief referee Andy McFee. The spectators believed the ball was embedded in sand, from which a player would not have been entitled a free drop. McFee agreed and informed Woods of a two-shot penalty following his round.
"An embedded ball relief is through the green but in ground other than sand," McFee said. "I talked to him when he came off the 11th tee because I couldn't be sure about a two-stroke penalty until we got into the recording area. I don't know the exact spot where he was. I know the area. I would need Tiger to come out and have a look, and he was happy it was in sand."
Woods' round of 73 was changed to a 75, thus placing him below the cut-line.
Such has become the trend in professional golf: spectators and television viewers informing tournament officials (via tweets, emails, phone calls and the like) of rule violations witnessed during a round that would have otherwise gone unreported by the player.
But, isn't that the whole point?
Golf is unique in that it is the only sport where players call infractions and penalties on themselves. It instills a certain quality of honesty in the game that has been followed for centuries. You could argue that golf is above other sports in this quality, if nothing else due to an underlying aura of honesty within its very inception.
However, it has become increasingly apparent this fundamental element has become more complicated. Thanks to the advent of social media, enhanced television coverage and other technologies, armchair officials have increased exponentially.
The voiceless golf audience has now been granted a voice; but discretion is often the better part of valor.
In the aforementioned Woods mishap, two players conferred and agreed on a ruling during tournament play just as the original rule makers had intended. A problem was addressed, a judgement was made and play continued. At that point the matter should have been decided and subsequently forgotten.
Instead, tournament officials who were not at the site of the decision as it happened passed judgement on an earlier event that had already been decided.
Of course, it turns out the officials' ultimate decision was indeed correct. It is the manner in which the decision was made that has become problematic and will -- given enough time -- prove to change the outcome of a major championship.
Woods would have likely not won the Abu Dhabi Championship had he made the cut this week. But it is not the duty of spectators to decide that for him.