Zach Johnson fortunate that mistake didn’t cost him, so was Bobby Locke in 1957

Zach Johnson wasn’t the first player to forget to move his ball-marker back to the right place before holing his final putt for an apparent three-stroke victory. The very same thing happened to Bobby Locke at the 1957 British Open. Locke also emerged unscathed with the title, but the circumstances were different.

In Locke’s case, the Rules infraction went unnoticed until somebody spotted it in a newsreel and brought it to the attention of the Royal & Ancient Golf Club, which administers both the Open Championship (as the event is formally known) and the Rules of Golf. The R&A was thrust into a problematical situation because of a couple of differences in the Rules then as compared to today.

As the Rules are now written, a penalty can’t be imposed after the competition has closed unless the player knew he had broken a Rule. However, the Rules were silent on this issue in 1957.

What’s more, the situation of playing from the wrong place was not specifically addressed in the Rules then. It’s now a two-stroke penalty in stroke play, with the additional requirement of correcting the error in the case of a serious breach. But that Rule only came onto the books in 1972. Therefore, instead of a two-stroke penalty, a player would be disqualified in 1957 for playing from the wrong place—incurring the penalty for not playing the ball from the teeing ground into the hole by successive strokes according to the Rules. So there was no rationale about a two-stroke penalty not changing the outcome when the margin was three strokes.

But the R&A did have an “out.” Then, as now, the committee in charge of the competition has the authority to waive or modify a penalty of disqualification in exceptional individual cases. So the R&A was able to rule that “with his three-shot lead and no advantage having been gained, the equity and spirit of the game dictated that [Locke] should not be disqualified.”

Those who complain about the Rules being too complicated should take note that there is a good reason there are so many Rules. A lot of stuff can happen on a golf course, and the Rules are there to make it more equitable. Or would you rather have a disqualification penalty for a player hitting a putt from a putterhead’s length away from where he was supposed to?

Johnson’s situation at the Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial was that his infraction put him in jeopardy of disqualification for signing an incorrect scorecard—but only if it came to light in the relatively short period between the time he signed an incorrect card (if he had not yet known about the infraction) and the awards ceremony. The Rules state that the competition has closed “when the winner has been officially announced.” In practical terms on the PGA Tour, that means handing him the trophy in front of the crowd.

But if Johnson had scored an apparent one-stroke victory, the possible scenarios would have run the gamut from a runner-up finish with a two-stroke penalty applied before he signed his scorecard, disqualification if discovered after he signed but before the awards ceremony, or a victory if discovered after he had been announced as the winner.

That’s an extremely disparate set of outcomes for the very same Rules infraction. Taken individually, though, each one makes sense. Allowing a player to be disqualified for an unknowing violation after the close of competition would open a big can of worms. But applying the penalty for a violation discovered before a player signs his card certainly is justified.

The only one of those possible outcomes deserving serious scrutiny is the DQ for an incorrect scorecard. It seems a harsh penalty, but the rationale is that without the DQ penalty a player would be tempted not to include penalty strokes for an infraction he knew he had committed, hoping he could get away with it, or give an advantage to a player for not knowing the Rules. While the Rules depend on the integrity of the player, it’s only realistic that they also be written with the assumption that not every player in every situation will always act with integrity. That said, I’m not comfortable with the harshness of the DQ penalty for inadvertent violations and not totally convinced that the overall principle trumps that inequity.

It’s interesting what would have happened if Johnson had signed an incorrect scorecard that didn’t include the penalty and the infraction had been discovered before the awards ceremony. In this specific case—a two-stroke penalty that happened on the last stroke of an apparent three-stroke victory—there would be no hypothetical motivation for a player not to sign for the penalty. Would the committee (i.e., the PGA Tour) have used its authority to waive or modify the DQ penalty? It could have been the Bobby Locke ruling all over again. (The fact that it happened on the last hole is significant. If it happened on an earlier hole, the margin between the two players as the round continued could have affected strategy; therefore you couldn’t have simply said that a three-stroke margin at the end would definitely translate to a one-stroke victory with the penalty.)

In this case, all was well that ended well as the Tour became aware of the infraction in time and a two-stroke penalty was applied to Johnson’s score. His victory was thus the result of Johnson making a seemingly meaningless four-and-a-half-foot putt that turned out to be the margin of victory, and also of missing the dreaded DQ time frame for the infraction to come to light.

The latter is a complicated story involving CBS on-course reporter Peter Kostis, who said on the air that he hadn’t seen Johnson replace his marker. He’s come under some criticism for getting involved with influencing the outcome of an event as a media member instead of just reporting on it. Actually, what he was doing was reporting what he saw, which is exactly what he was supposed to be doing as a media member.

It would be more justifiable to criticize Kostis for not calling out to Johnson to rectify his mistake before it turned into a penalty. Still, it’s understandable that he didn’t do so. As with nearly any observer in that situation, there has to be some doubt as to whether the player really didn’t replace the marker or whether you just didn’t notice that he did. That’s why Kostis asked Jim Nantz and Nick Faldo in the booth whether they had seen Johnson replace the marker. By that time, Johnson was over the ball and Kostis felt it was too late to get his attention.

No spectator called out, probably for the same reason. When a player forgets to return his marker to its original position, his fellow competitor generally calls his attention to it but in this case Dufner apparently didn’t notice. But you can’t say the incident was Dufner’s fault. In the end, it was Johnson’s responsibility—and, it is fair to say, his caddie’s, too.

Still, Kostis, Dufner, and caddie Damon Green—along with Johnson—must have all heaved sighs of relief that the incident had the resolution that it did.

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