- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 10, 2003

In baseball, a player gets caught with a corked bat, draws an eight-game suspension and — naturally — appeals (while his defenders cry racism). In golf, a player is socked with a nit-picky two-stroke penalty coming down the stretch of a tournament — all but killing his chances of winning — and trudges on to the next event. No tantrums, no pouting, only a gentlemanly “I beg to differ.”

“You don’t have a rules lawyer who can defend you at the end of a round,” Duffy Waldorf said philosophically. “Maybe I need one.”

The PGA Tour is, indeed, a different world, and we were reminded of that again yesterday at Avenel. The game comes first — the game and its rules, no matter how silly the latter might seem. The one that undid Waldorf in the final round of the Capital Open was rule 13.2, for those of you scoring at home. And there obviously are some people scoring at home, because one of them watching on ESPN2 called the USGA yesterday afternoon and said, “Hey, Duffy Waldorf just improved his line of flight on the 12th hole, when he tapped down that pitch mark in front of [and to the right of] his ball. You can’t do that.”

He was right, too. You can’t do that — technically, at least. But there’s a gray area to the rule, a part that leaves it open to interpretation, and that’s what Waldorf was hoping would save him. He didn’t think the pitch mark was in his line of flight, and the TV replays seemed to agree with him. But tournament director Mark Russell didn’t agree with him, arguing that while the mark wasn’t in Duffy’s direct line, it was within a reasonable distance of his line.

So instead of a birdie at the ultra-tough 12th, Waldorf wound up with a bogey. And instead of finishing second by himself at 12 under, two shots behind Rory Sabbatini, he had to share the runner-up spot with Joe Durant and favorite son Fred Funk at minus-10. This reduced the size of his check by $150,000 — about 10 percent of his (estimated) earnings this year.

According to Waldorf, he was standing over his approach on 12, getting ready to hit, when he heard a cart go by. So he stepped away from his ball, absentmindedly did some groundskeeping on the pitch mark, then settled back into his stance and knocked his shot on the green.

“It’s kinda like when a batter steps out [of the box] and taps his spikes — resets,” he said. “I was just resetting. I told [officials:] ‘If I had hit it directly over that mark, I would have hit it 40-to-50 yards right of the green.’ … After viewing it myself [on videotape], I didn’t feel I’d done something wrong. But they thought I’d breached the rule.”

Looking back, you can’t say the ruling actually cost Waldorf the tournament. After all, Sabbatini was never fewer than two strokes ahead of him on the back nine. But it certainly made things more difficult for Duffy, especially since he learned of the possible infraction coming off the 16th tee — and promptly bogeyed (while Rory was ringing up another birdie).

For a tournament that seemed cursed from the beginning — drowned in something resembling a tsunami — it was only fitting that the drama of the last few holes was undermined by controversy. And make no mistake, the two leaders had a pretty good go of it after the turn, throwing eagles at each other on 13 and exchanging birdies two holes later. But then rule 13.2 reared its ugly head … Ten years from now, that’s probably all anybody will remember of the final day.

So it goes for Washington’s annual golf tournament. The new sponsor, FBR, sure got an education this past week, didn’t it? The rain — dump trucks of it — turned the event into the Lift, Clean and Place Classic and caused the third round to be postponed. It was also a nightmare for the area’s loyal golf fans, who spent hours getting to and from the course on shuttle buses from distant parking lots.

If the FBR folks do nothing else, they should spend the next year solving the parking problem, which has haunted the tournament forever. Clearly, Avenel can’t just pave a square mile of pasture. The cost would be prohibitive (and the cows, who have a powerful neighborhood association, wouldn’t stand for it). A Metro stop in Potomac is equally unlikely (given the fierce opposition to speed bumps in some subdivisions). Still, the event can do better for its patrons than this. It has to do better for its patrons than this.

After the winner had been handed his trophy, Waldorf was asked to put his “faux pas” in perspective. “How would you compare it,” I asked him, “to corking a baseball bat?”

“Well, unintentionally corking a baseball bat,” he answered diplomatically, “it’s in the same ballpark. If somebody handed [Sammy Sosa] a bat that he didn’t know had cork in it, it’s pretty similar. If he had known about the cork — it’s just a totally different league.”

The same might be said of golf — and its sometimes screwy sense of propriety. Just a totally different league.

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