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Regulatory Bogeys

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08/15/2010

Rule 13-4 of the Rules of Golf prohibit a player from touching the ground with his club while making a shot inside a bunker. The penalty for breach of this rule is two strokes added to the player’s score. Anyone who was unaware of this essential knowledge a few hours ago is no longer in the dark due to the finish at one of golf’s premier events, the PGA Championship. After finishing the tournament tied for the lead, Dustin Johnson fell prey to Rule 13-4, eliminating him from what would have been a three-way playoff for the championship — and providing an interesting allegory for the American obsession with bureaucracy and regulation.

Johnson’s errant tee shot at the 18th hole — the 72nd overall — went into the crowd, landing in what looked like a random patch of dirt. Johnson recovered on his second shot and finished the hole in five strokes. After completing the hole, Johnson went to sign his official scorecard, when he was informed by PGA officials that the random patch of dirt was in fact a “bunker,” and since video footage clearly showed he grounded his club before making the second shot, he breached Rule 13-4. The two-stroke penalty made his official score on the hole seven and dropped him out of the tie for the 72-hole lead.

The crowd was displeased. While Johnson discussed the situation with PGA officials, the fans in the 18th hole’s grandstands chanted, “Let him play!” to no avail. The CBS announcers were sympathetic, even though they were partially responsible for what was transpiring. As Jason Sobel of ESPN noted, the PGA officials relied on television replays to catch Johnson’s breach after the fact: “If Johnson had the same situation take place on his third hole of the second round, chances are no cameras would have picked it up and/or cared.” The ruling itself was correct, but “[t]he fact that there’s an inconsistency between players all week never having such a ruling reviewed and Dustin Johnson having his reviewed by officials only because he was leading on the final hole is completely bogus.”

The underlying problem was that Johnson simply didn’t know the patch of dirt his ball landed in was defined as a “bunker” by the PGA. It sure didn’t look like a bunker on television, just a patch of ground that the crowd spent the day trampling on. In a statement explaining the Johnson penalty, the PGA said it was an issue of “founders’ intent”:

All areas of the course that were designed and built as sand bunkers will be played as bunkers (hazards), whether or not they have been raked. This will mean that many bunkers positioned outside of the ropes, as well as some areas of bunkers inside the ropes, close to the rope line, will likely include numerous footprints, heel prints and tire tracks during the play of the Championship. Such irregularities of surface are a part of the game and no free relief will be available from these conditions.

So Johnson was just supposed to know it was a bunker. Apparently the PGA rules official walking with Johnson and his partner felt no need to say, “Hey, you know that’s a bunker, right?” Again, the PGA only caught the violation afterwards by watching the CBS-provided replay.

This is one of these stories that will provide media chum for days, along the lines of the recent Armando Galarraga “perfect game” that was lost due to an admitted umpiring error on the 27th batter. People tend to rail against these types of minor injustices without stopping to consider the larger problem that I alluded to above — the American obsession with bureaucracy and regulation.

A primary conceit of modern bureaucracy is the imposition of strict liability upon the regulated but not the regulators. The bureaucrats demand obedience because of their “expertise,” yet they simultaneously demand perfect knowledge on the part of non-expert individuals who must understand and abide by every rule; after all, ignorance of the law is no excuse. It is not the bureaucrat’s duty to explain, but the citizen’s obligation to know.

In Dustin Johnson’s case, he failed to comprehend the rule quoted above, which was a local decree in effect for this tournament. Nick Watney, Johnson’s playing partner today, noted officials issue these rules sheets at every tournament but added, “Honestly, I don’t think anyone reads the sheet.” Johnson’s undoing was trying to exercise some common sense: Bunkers normally don’t include areas where fans are standing. It never occurred to him that he was in a bunker, and absent the PGA’s intervention, nobody would have known. The PGA believed literal enforcement of its rules trumped all other considerations.

This is a common mentality among regulators. They want to dazzle you with their comprehension of even the most arcane procedures. It was comical watching the PGA officials hold up their playoff to explain to Johnson how he really was in a bunker. It’s less comical when the Federal Trade Commission holds up a merger for two years using every procedural roadblock in its arsenal.

And that is an important distinction. The PGA officials weren’t acting with any malice towards Johnson; that is usually not the case with government regulators. Still, there is a similar thought process that elevates rulemaking and rules “enforcement” to a primary virtue. The market — the crowd, if you will — generally doesn’t value the strict enforcement of inherently arbitrary rules to anywhere near the extent that rule enforcers do (hence the chant, “Let him play!”). The bureaucrats view this as a sign of the public’s weakness; the average person somehow lacks the bureaucrat’s integrity in pursuing absolute adherence to any and every commandment issued by those claiming to be authorities.

It’s ludicrous of course, if for no other reason than 100 percent adherence to any regulatory scheme is impossible. Like any manmade endeavor, regulatory schemes are imperfect, even if they are purely voluntary like the Rules of Golf. There is no perfect method for pursuing imperfection.

Skip Oliva is a writer and paralegal in Virginia (skip@skipoliva.com).

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