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Harrington penalty highlights lack of fair play

Late on the Friday evening of the 2000 US Open at Pebble Beach, the last stroke that Pádraig Harrington executed before play was suspended for poor light was a 10-foot putt on the ninth. Seconds earlier, he had called a one-stroke penalty on himself after his ball moved backwards into a depression.

"Nobody saw it except me," he said. "What bothers me is that these things come in threes and I'm wondering when the third one is going to happen." Ten years and seven months later, he got the answer in Abu Dhabi on Friday. His reference, incidentally, to things happening in threes had to do with a crushing disqualification from the Benson and Hedges International at The Belfry a month prior to Pebble when, in sight of victory, he was discovered not to have signed his scorecard for the opening round.

The post-mortem into that particular episode was relatively muted, however, compared with the furore the Abu Dhabi incident has raised. And with good reason. It seems that the Royal and Ancient have been utterly inflexible in approaches by the European Tour aimed at making the punishment fit the crime through the retrospective imposition of penalties, rather than disqualification.

In this context, it is fascinating to recall the events at St Andrews in 1957 when Bobby Locke won the Open Championship in what proved to be highly controversial circumstances. On the final green, Locke moved his ball a couple of putterheads' distance from its original position so as to facilitate a fellow competitor.

The South African then putted out for a closing round of 70, forgetting to replace his ball correctly. In the excitement of the moment, nobody noticed. Indeed Locke's error came to light only when it was spotted on a subsequent newsreel film.

Given the clear breach of rule, what would the R and A do? Would the Open champion be asked to hand back the Claret Jug, giving the title to the runner-up, Peter Thomson?

In the event, the R and A discussed the matter and, after due consideration of all the facts, decided that the result would stand. Their reasoning was that Locke had not gained any advantage from the breach and that even if a two-stroke penalty were imposed retrospectively, he would still have finished a stroke clear of Thomson because of his three-stroke winning margin.

Equity and self-regulation are supposed to be at the heart of the Rules of Golf. In this context, Harrington's action at Pebble Beach was entirely in keeping with the spirit of the game. As Bobby Jones once said, complimenting a golfer for calling a penalty on himself is like praising someone for not robbing a bank.

But what about Abu Dhabi, where he wasn't even aware of having accidentally moved the ball a fraction of an inch? As it happened, the viewer who reported his transgression wouldn't have been in a position to do so but for the relatively recent development of high definition and super-slow-motion technology.

Jack Nicklaus captured the essence of the situation when claiming last week that the rules should be based on common sense. "It's more difficult to pass the test to be a rules official than it is to pass the bar exam, and there's no reason for that," he said. "The game should be simple and people should be able to understand the rules."

Meanwhile, Rule 34, dealing with disputes and decisions, could be given the flexibility to permit retrospective penalties, so avoiding the gross unfairness of the Harrington punishment in the future. Given how the R and A found a way around the problem posed by Locke in 1957, it shouldn't be beyond their capacity to do so on a more general level. If only in the interest of equity.

Sunday Indo Sport