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Players deserve protection from themselves

THE world's top professional Tours should act now to offer some measure of protection for players like Camilo Villegas, who last Friday morning was disqualified from the Hyundai Tournament of Champions.

Tournament officials were left with no option but to disqualify the Colombian after a hawk-eyed TV viewer in Florida alerted them overnight to a blatant breach of the rules by Villegas during Thursday's first round.

No question: by absent-mindedly flicking away part of his divot as his ball rolled back down a greenside bank towards him at hole 15, Villegas broke Rule 23-1.

And since his card did not include the required two-stroke penalty at that hole, he was eliminated from the tournament for signing for a wrong score.

There is no flexibility in golf for ignorance of the rules and no leeway is given for absent-minded or innocent breaches. Nor should there be. It is essential that the laws are rigidly observed and enforced.

Yet the small percentage of golfers who feature on TV are being placed at a severe disadvantage when inadvertent transgressions are reported by viewers.

In the majority of cases, the viewer sitting at home cannot get word of a rules breach to officials until long after the player in question signs his card, leading inevitably to his or her disqualification, even though the proscribed penalty for the initial offence can be just one or two strokes, as it was with Villegas.

Is it not imperative for a rules official or officials at significant golf events to be given the specific task of monitoring the telecast, giving them the opportunity to bring any transgressions to the attention of the player before he or she signs the card?

It would also be useful, for example, in determining precisely where a ball last entered a lateral water hazard, assisting in the search for lost balls or helping officials on the ground judge incidents they would not have seen for themselves.

They have video refs in top-flight rugby, American football and cricket, so why not golf? This vital role should not be left to the armchair fan at home.

Villegas is just the latest in a series of professional golfers to become embroiled in controversial rules issues. Here are 10 other cases which made headlines in the past 12 months:

March 25 -- Young tournament invitee Borja Etchart of Spain was sent home in tears from the European Tour's Andalucian Open for breaches of Rule 20-3 after playing companions reported him for failing to mark and replace his ball properly on the green. One of them, Norway's Eirik Tage Johansen, also was disqualified (under Rule 1-3) for signing Etchart's card despite being aware of the transgression.

April 18 -- Brian Davis lost the tournament but won countless admirers for instantly calling a two-stroke penalty against himself during sudden death with Jim Furyk at the Heritage. The Englishman's club almost imperceptibly brushed a loose reed stalk in the hazard by the final green, contrary to 13-4c.

July 25 -- Sarah Browne was forced off the golf course protesting her innocence after completing nine holes on the Sunday at the International at Concord. Brown was just three off the lead when officials, alerted by another player, wrongly ruled that one of her wedges had non-conforming grooves. The Duramed Futures Tour later agreed an undisclosed financial settlement with her.

August 15 -- Dustin Johnson missed the US PGA play-off when penalised two strokes (under Rule 13-4b) for grounding his club in a hazard way to the right of the 72nd fairway. "It never once crossed my mind it was a bunker," said Johnson of the small trap, which had been well trodden by fans. He hadn't read championship local rules defining all sandy areas at Whistling Straits as hazards.

August 21 -- Seven-time Major winner and TV pundit Julie Inkster was disqualified from the LPGA Tour's Safeway Classic when a TV viewer spotted her taking practice swings with a 'doughnut' weight on one of her irons during a lengthy delay on a tee. Officials were made aware of this breach of Rule 14-3 anonymously by email.

August 21 -- Mexico's Jose de Jesus Rodriguez was so excited after his course-record 61 at the Seaforth Classic in Ontario, he left the marker's hut without signing his card, leading to his disqualification from the Canadian Tour event. Padraig Harrington infamously fell foul of the same rule in the 2000 B&H International Open at the Belfry.

August 25 -- Jim Furyk was ruled out of the Barclays, first of the FedEx Cup play-offs, when he slept in and missed his Pro-Am tee time by five minutes. Under PGA Tour rules, if you miss the Pro-Am, you cannot play the main event. Furyk still won the FedEx Cup.

August 26 -- Koreans Shi Hyun Ahn and Ilmi Chung were both disqualified from the LPGA Tour's Canadian Women's Open when they played each other's ball on 18, sublimely putted out and then signed their cards before explaining what had happened to officials. The transgression had been noticed by another player's caddie.

September 17 -- Elliot Saltman was disqualified from the M2M Russian Challenge Cup for marking and replacing his ball improperly. The Scot has sought a meeting with Europe's Tournament Committee to clarify statements he made to officials at that time after what he described as "disgusting" allegations on the internet.

November 28 -- Ian Poulter called foul on himself when he dropped his ball on his marker on the second tie hole at the Dubai World Championship, causing it to flip, contrary to Rule 20-3. The one-stroke penalty snuffed out the Englishman's hope, albeit faint, of beating Robert Karlsson.

Irish Independent