A rule is a rule unless ...

Posted: Sunday, July 20, 2003

A rule is a rule is a rule. Unless, as Jesper Parnevik so succinctly put it, ''It's the dumbest rule ever.''

After six centuries of tinkering with the rulebook, discarding some entries and refining others, golf still has plenty of contenders.

If you happen to be addressing the ball when a gust of wind moves it even a millimeter, it's a one-stroke penalty. Phil Mickelson called that violation on himself in the first round of the British Open two days ago.

Try out a new driver on the practice range, stick it in the golf bag alongside the 14 clubs you're allowed to carry, then step on the course and never use it, that's still a two-stroke penalty for every hole played. Ian Woosnam called that penalty on himself on the final Sunday of the British Open two years ago.

Both might seem unnecessarily harsh. But neither can hold a candle to 6-6.d, which got Mark Roe booted from the British Open right after he shot a 67 Saturday that would have left him tied for third heading in the final round.

(Parnevik was also disqualified, but that was almost a merciful end to his tournament; he was 15-over at the time.)

In professional golf tournaments, players exchange scorecards and keep each other's scores. What happened in this case is Parnevik and Roe forgot to exchange scorecards on the first tee, though each had the player's name printed in the top left-hand corner.

They proceeded to keep each other's scores, then signed the scorecards and turned them in. Ten minutes after leaving the scoring trailer and doing several interviews, Parnevik found Roe and told him they'd both been disqualified.

Roe, a 40-year-old Englishman, turned up at a hastily arranged news conference minutes later and gave the term ''stiff upper lip'' new meaning. Asked whether anything happened on the first tee that might have caused the mixup, Roe smiled wryly.

''I was distracted by Jesper's outfit again,'' he said to laughter. ''I simply couldn't believe the color of his trousers.''

Then Roe took full responsibility for the screwup. It was his fault, not the sartorially challenged Parnevik, not the rules officials from the Royal & Ancient who checked the cards in the scorer's tent afterward, nor anyone else.

''I should probably go out and shed a tear in private, to be honest with you,'' he said. ''But at the end of that, when I see my kids, this won't seem so bad.''

That's true in Roe's case, for a number of reasons. Though he won three times on the European PGA Tour, none of those tournaments matched the thrill of the last three days when, playing in front of his wildly cheering countrymen, Roe moved into contention for golf's oldest championship.

More likely, though, this setback seemed insignificant because of what Roe endured eight years ago. Suffering through a bout of severe depression over the breakup of his first marriage, he went into the attic of his home, put a loaded shotgun in his mouth and nearly pulled the trigger.

So this one will never qualify as a tragedy, no matter how bad it seems to the rest of us. But it shouldn't stop us, either, from righting an obvious wrong.

Penalizing players because their ball was nudged by the wind or because they carried an extra club became rules to protect the integrity of the game. While the intent of 6-6.d is similarly to prevent players from cheating, that avenue had already been effectively closed off in pro golf for years.

Besides the presence of TV cameras and witnesses in the millions, an impartial scorer accompanies every group. An R&A official conceded late Saturday that Rule 6-6.d has come up for discussion several times, most recently two or three years ago.

''Everybody in the world knows what me and Roey shot,'' Parnevik said. ''It's not like he put down for a 64 and hoped no one noticed.''

The most famous gaffe in major championship history was committed by Argentinian Roberto Di Vicenzo at the 1968 Masters. He signed a scorecard for one stroke higher than he actually shot in the final round. Under the rules, that score was posted and he wound up losing by one shot.

In what might be the best utterance in major championship history, Di Vicenzo said, ''What a stupid I am.''

The next week, he went to the Houston Open and beat Lee Trevino by a shot.

Roe would like to catch the same wave.

''Hopefully, I'll go and keep playing the way I'm playing and maybe do something special in the coming weeks,'' he said.

Meantime, he won't anguish over what the mistake cost him. Thinking about what might have been, though, is another story. Especially when he turns on TV for the final round.

''I'll sit and watch with my family. There will be something inside of me that will be saying, 'I wonder.' What could have happened tomorrow?'' Roe said. ''I'll wonder the rest of my life.''

Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke@ap.org.

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