Englishman Luke Donald had a rough first round at the Masters, carding a 77 even before being notified of a two-stroke penalty for a bunker shot on nine. It seems Donald grounded his club with the ball still in the sand, and nobody would have noticed—if not for a couple of eagle-eyed fans who tattled on him, almost by accident.
Jay Busbee at Yahoo tracked down one of the fans (who spoke on condition of anonymity), who explains how it went down:
"He hit the ball fat, it hit the lip, and rolled back down to his right," "John" said. Donald then "smacked the sand," in John's words. The USGA's Rule 13-4 prohibits a player from touching the sand in a bunker for any purpose other than smoothing or cleaning.
At the time, John and his companion found the "smack" a little suspicious, but didn't immediately report it. Later, while walking near the fairway at 11, they spotted a rules official in a golf cart and struck up a conversation. Their topic: Rule 13-4.
"We didn't intend to report it, but I thought I knew how the rule works, and it seemed so obvious to me," John said. He doesn't recall the exact sequence of events that followed, but he offered a hypothetical about 13-4 to the rules official. When it became clear to the rules official that John and his companion knew something, the official asked for more specifics, and John replied with the details of Donald at the Hole 9 bunker.
"He drove off, and we were like, 'Holy s—-,'" John said. "It was kind of crazy. We didn't think we were setting wheels in motion."
First off, it's irritating that Donald was penalized for smacking the sand in anger at his own shot, but the rules don't offer any leeway.
Second, and I say this as total golf outsider who does understand that fans (I refuse to use the Masters term "patrons") are allowed, almost encouraged to report rules violations, but there's something really screwed up about a sport that requires fan snitching to police itself.
Leave it to the players and officials who are trained to be there, and more importantly, are objective. If necessary, hire people to watch video of every single hole. If this sport is to have a level playing field—and the people who bet on it damn sure need to believe it does—deputizing fans (and even TV viewers!) inevitably results in unequal enforcement.
And it puts those fans in a weird place. Look at the guy who reported Luke Donald—he didn't want his real name used, and he sounds almost apologetic.
"I'm ambivalent about it," said the fan. "I'd be fine if it wasn't part of the game, but today, it is. If [reporting penalties] is something golf doesn't want to happen, they shouldn't give fans access to rules officials."