Poulter's costly drop opens rules debate
The greatest ever European Tour season ended on the turn of a coin. It was as unintentional as it was inappropriate when Ian Poulter was forced to add an unlucky penalty stroke as he prepared to putt for birdie on the second hole of a sudden-death play-off.
The Englishman had accidentally dropped his ball on the coin he uses as a ball marker and the fact that it flipped over and changed position made him liable to the penalty shot that made victory in the season-ending Dubai World Championship a formality for Sweden's Robert Karlsson.
An anti-climactic end to an otherwise thrilling final day of the European Tour season and the incident re-opened the debate on the arcane nature of the rules of golf.
Was it a penalty inappropriate to the crime? Yes, undoubtedly, because there was no intentional breach of the rules, but is this apparent injustice a price worth paying to ensure the game remains the cleanest sport out there?
As I reported Poulter's misfortune on BBC 5 Live the listening panel of footballers and presenter Colin Murray could be heard sniggering at the absurdity of it all.
Here was golf shooting itself in the foot yet again with its stupid rules that are so out of touch with common sense. Add Poulter's misfortune to the long list of incidents where the laws of the game have been made to look an ass.
Colin Montgomerie missed out on a £821,000 ($1.28m) payday in China a couple of weeks ago when his caddie erroneously moved an advertising hoarding from the middle of a fairway before putting it back in exactly the correct position.
Another example was Mark Roe's card swapping problems at the 2003 Open Championship - the list goes on and on.
Tournament referee Andy McFee (left) consoles Ian Poulter. Picture: Getty Images.
Here's what the official statement from referee Andy McFee says on Poulter's misfortune: "Decision 20-1/15 is the applicable decision. The answer makes it clear that any accidental movement of the ball marker which occurs before or after the specific act of marking, including as a result of dropping the ball, regardless of the height from which it was dropped, is not considered to be 'directly attributable' to the specific act of marking and results in a one stroke penalty."
Some may consider this pompous legalese that does the game no favours but the rule book and the book of decisions that back it up are the legislative backbone of the game. The language has to be precise to ensure there is no room for argument.
The rule is there to prevent players from dishonestly shoving their marker closer to the hole with an 'accidental' dropping of the ball. It is there to protect every other player in the field.
The victim is the unlucky player who does accidentally and unintentionally shift his ball in the way that Poulter did, but that is the price you pay for the removal of a grey area that the less scrupulous might seek to exploit.
It is this precision that is so often deemed petty that means golfers play the game in the spirit for which the sport is lauded. As soon as Poulter's coin moved he turned to McFee to tell him what happened - that's what golfers do.
In pretty much every other sport players try to find a way to get away with a rules breach, but rarely in golf. Those that do play fast and loose with the regulations are never forgotten and rarely forgiven by their rivals.
That's the culture of the game and it has to be protected at all costs.
It was a shame for this remarkable season to end on such a frustrating note. The European Tour spawned three major winners and a world number one in 2010.
Race to Dubai winner Martin Kaymer is a very special talent, as I blogged after his Dunhill Links Championship win. The 25-year-old German is the most likely player to overhaul Lee Westwood at the top of the rankings next year.
That said, Westwood added a third place in the Dubai World Championship to his runner-up finish in Shanghai without being fully match-tight and the Englishman will take some shifting.
Poulter will look to maintain the momentum that brought him a win and a second place finish in the last two weeks of the season and will no doubt be taking extra care over the process of marking his ball in the 2011 season.