Opinion: Pro Golfers Should Still Keep Score—But Let’s Reduce the Penalty for an Incorrect Card
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Opinion: Pro Golfers Should Still Keep Score—But Let’s Reduce the Penalty for an Incorrect Card

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Opinion: Pro Golfers Should Still Keep Score—But Let’s Reduce the Penalty for an Incorrect Card

Last week, Jordan Spieth was disqualified from the Genesis Invitational because he signed an incorrect scorecard. 

Spieth made a bogey on the par-3 fourth. His playing partner, Tom Kim, responsible for recording Spieth’s score, mistakenly put him down for a par. 

After a poor finish to his round, Spieth hastily checked with the scoring official to make sure the scores he had written down for himself—which were not official—matched with what the PGA Tour had in their system.

All the numbers matched so Spieth signed his card and bolted before Kim arrived at the scoring area. 

But Spieth’s official score was on the card Kim had. And Kim had it wrong. 

If Spieth waited for Kim, delayed signing his card or remained in the scoring area instead of immediately leaving, there would have been no issue. He committed a cardinal sin for competitive golf and got punished for it. 

To his credit, Spieth laughed about it later. He knows the rules. It is standard practice across competitive golf. 

Regardless, this incident reignited a two-pronged debate. 

Why are PGA Tour players responsible for keeping their own score, especially when there are cameras, ShotLink data and walking scorers with each group? We all know what his score was so why are we going through this antiquated system? 

And why is the penalty for an incorrect scorecard so harsh? A clerical error leads to a DQ? 

My suggestion is that we keep the same scorekeeping system (with a couple of tweaks) but reduce the punishment for incorrect cards.  

Why Players Should Still Keep Score

I am ready for the passionate responses to this one. 

I get it. It’s 2024. If you go to a PGA Tour event, you will see an enormous amount of coverage in an effort to accurately track each shot. It seems counterintuitive for anything to be manual. 

Virtually every other sport has official scorekeeping as the competition is happening. We all know how many points the Miami Heat have scored midway through the third quarter. It doesn’t need to be verified by the players. 

But golf has some singular challenges that don’t apply to other sports. The more you pull on this thread, the more you realize it would be an immense challenge to drastically change the current system—and it would all be for something that maybe happens once a season on the PGA Tour. 

Let’s start here: There are thousands of professional golf events each year and 99 percent of them have no shot-tracking data or walking scorers. The game is kept track of by those playing it. 

When you sign your card and your fellow competitort’s card, you are attesting to the legitimacy of the round. There is no other way to reliably keep score for the vast majority of professional golf events, let alone amateur golf tournaments where there are sometimes no witnesses at all to the competition. 

If you want to draw the line with PGA Tour events being the only tournaments where players are not asked to keep score, there are still serious complications. 

Namely, who will keep score? 

Walking scorers are volunteers. They are trained and usually accurate but they can make errors. 

ShotLink data, also run by volunteers, is mostly correct but can have mistakes, especially in the case of strange rulings. And ShotLink is not even present at many PGA Tour events. At some tournaments like the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, one course being played has ShotLink (Pebble Beach) and the other doesn’t (Spyglass Hill). 

There are dozens, sometimes hundreds, of golf balls in play at one time. Spieth has most of his shots shown on TV, but Alex Smalley (to use a random player) might go an entire tournament with fewer than 10 percent of his covered. 

How are we going to verify what both of them shot in a uniform way? 

Use TV coverage for one of them and not for the other? Trust the ShotLink/walking scorer data 100 percent and assume it is accurate at all times? According to PGA Tour players, there are occasionally inconsistencies between live scoring and reality

One comparison I’ve heard a lot this past week is that the PGA Tour is like the IRS with taxes. They “know the actual score” but are ready to punish people for not reporting the score correctly in the same way the IRS “knows what you owe” but penalizes those for not filing taxes accurately. 

I think this is a misguided criticism. The technology helps to flag issues between live scoring and what the written scorecard says—officials will bring that up to players in the scoring area and it almost always gets corrected. 

The PGA Tour (and all of us watching) knows Spieth made a bogey. But the Tour does not necessarily know Smalley’s score after he took a free drop that the walking scorer accidentally marked as a one-stroke penalty. 

There could, in theory, be a paid walking scorer with every group that records an “official score” but A) it might not be feasible to staff rules officials with every group for every tournament and B) there will still be instances where the player needs to verify their score, which already happens under the current system. 

Could caddies carry an iPhone and submit an “official score” as play happens? Possibly, but it seems vulnerable to more mistakes than we have now. Bad weather conditions, carelessness and not having the player check their score after each hole are all roadblocks there. 

One realistic tweak to be made (at least on the PGA Tour) is mandating that players remain somewhere in the scoring area until their playing partners have arrived. I also think there can be more of a grace period where, if a mistake is caught within a couple minutes of someone signing an incorrect card, the score can be corrected without penalty, even if someone has momentarily left the scoring area. 

I agree that golf rules can be archaic and too hung up on certain traditions but this checks-and-balances system works. Golf is a game of integrity where each player has responsibility for the score they shoot. Players can and do assess penalties on themselves which also often isn’t accounted for in live scoring. 

Is it too much to ask for these extremely well-compensated players to sit in the scoring area for three minutes and verify their scores? If they do, any discrepancy will be caught. Among thousands and thousands of PGA Tour rounds, this is almost never a problem. 

I will concede that it’s frustrating to watch a player like Spieth get punished for carelessness when we know exactly what he made on that hole. We have video of him making a bogey. It’s clear as day. 

But it’s not always clear as day. And there has to be one rule across the board for PGA Tour golf.

Reduce the Punishment for an Incorrect Card

Where I do think golf goes too far is when players get disqualified for an incorrect card. 

Instead of a blanket rule across all levels, this should be a local rule where the PGA Tour or any other organization can give a player a two-stroke penalty for an incorrect card rather than disqualifying them. 

My reasoning is this: almost all incorrect cards at the highest level of play are a result of negligence. 

There should be a punishment for failing to uphold a standard that protects the field but disqualifying someone is too harsh. 

Having played a ton of competitive golf myself, I can say with confidence that almost all golfers who attempt to cheat aren’t doing so by arguing they made a 5 instead of a 6. 

There are incidents of cheating in pro golf, whether it’s a shady drop or subtly improving your lie. But at most levels, and especially on the PGA Tour, it’s almost unheard of for a player to say they made a lower score than in reality. 

I understand the argument that you can’t leave this open for interpretation. If someone signs for a score lower than what they made, then it’s impossible to be 100 percent sure of their intent. 

But I would argue that a two-stroke penalty is severe enough to be an appropriate punishment regardless of intent. As I mentioned, golfers at the PGA Tour level are usually being covered in numerous ways. And when they aren’t, their fellow competitor and caddie have a role to keep them accountable. 

This happens so rarely that it seems crazy to take a player out of a tournament. 

And this is an entertainment product—kicking Spieth out of your event is not helpful to the product. 

Parting Thoughts

I understand why people get so fired up about this. 

Golf is an odd sport that has a lot of old rules carried over from decades (or centuries) past. 

But there is something unique, meaningful and maybe even a touch romantic about a sport where the players are responsible for their score. 

Could the process be tweaked and modernized slightly? Yes. 

Should the penalty for an incorrect scorecard be reduced to two strokes? I think so. 

However, golf’s scorekeeping system has mostly been successful over the years. There are instances of boneheaded mistakes—like when Roberto De Vicenzo missed out on a playoff at the 1968 Masters because he signed for a score one stroke higher than he made—but they are incredibly rare. 

And, it’s worth noting again, this is a system that is used at all levels of golf to accommodate when only the player knows exactly what their score was. 

Even on the PGA Tour, that checks-and-balances system is still needed to ensure the integrity of the competition. 

Do you think it’s time to overhaul scorekeeping on the PGA Tour and in other big events? Should we change the penalty for an incorrect card? 

I would like to hear your ideas and thoughts. 

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Sean Fairholm

Sean Fairholm

Sean Fairholm

Sean is a longtime golf journalist and underachieving 8 handicap who enjoys the game in all forms. If he didn't have an official career writing about golf, Sean would spend most of his free time writing about it anyway. When he isn't playing golf, you can find Sean watching his beloved Florida Panthers hockey team, traveling to a national park or listening to music on his record player. He lives in Nashville with his wife and dog (of course the dog's name is Hogan).

Sean Fairholm

Sean Fairholm

Sean Fairholm

Sean Fairholm

Sean Fairholm

Sean Fairholm





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      Jimbo

      2 months ago

      I totally agree with the scoring system—but do feel disqualification may be too harsh. Not sure if 2 stroke penalty is enough, tho… Carrying too many clubs (a similar—usually unintentional—oversight) can be more than 2 strokes…

      Reply

      Mark Blake

      2 months ago

      Golfers at all levels already have an official scorer appointed for them, who signs off the scorecard in the spot called “player” no need to give them another scorer.

      As for the penalty, i think DQ is still appropriate for the breach, due to the significant advantage a player could gain if not detected.

      Reply

      Jim Wright

      2 months ago

      At the PGA level there is zero need for the player to keep his own score. Period.

      Reply

      Peter R

      2 months ago

      I’ve worked as a standard bearer in a number of pro tournaments, and I can tell you that walking scorers are not required to be golfers or to know the rules. At a recent Champions Tour event, on the 5th hole (par 3), a player put his ball in a pond, dropped in the drop zone, hit onto the green, and two putted for 5. My walking scorer submitted a 4. It wasn’t until midway through the 7th hole that I convinced her that she had entered the wrong score. So for 20 minutes, the “official score” online was wrong. If another, less assertive standard bearer had been working with her, who knows when or if the score would have been corrected.

      And this woman had served as a walking scorer at various AT&T and FirstTee events at Pebble Beach. I have a friend who has worked many events at Pebble Beach as a walking scorer (including US Opens), wasn’t surprised by my story, and said that woman was known for problems like that.

      Reply

      The Swami

      2 months ago

      the problem I have with all of this is that Spieth had his score correct. and got DQ’d because someone else trying to keep his own score for him ‘officially’ got it wrong.
      if golf is supposed to be an honesty game (calling penalties on yourself, etc) why are professionals who are hyper-focused having to waste time watching and scoring someone else’s ball for them? honestly it’s amazing this doesn’t happen more often.
      spieth (or anyone) should keep his own score (like the rest of us) and turn it in after in the tent.
      if it’s wrong (by shotlink, TV, competitor’s scorecard comparison, etc) then fine DQ him for turning in HIS OWN CARD WRONG.
      the idea that a golfer could score his own round correctly and get DQ’d (or penalized 2 strokes, or really any penalty) is the problem here.

      Reply

      Javier

      2 months ago

      Honestly, why are they still wasting time and paper when the whole thing could be digitized. There could be an official scorer with a phone, keeping score, and as the score is input the players can verify it in real time by agreeing with their phone, and it’s updated instantly to the scoreboard. It’s not like the tech doesn’t exist. So to clarify a scorer will input the score, each player will get a notification to verify the score and the score of their playing partner, after verified it’s posted, done… If the tour is going to levy a penalty it needs to be consistent, DQd or stroke penalty, it can’t depend on the player, that is wrong.

      Reply

      Gordo

      2 months ago

      Anything will work if it is always applied the same way. Tiger took an illegal drop at the Masters. The score card he signed was incorrect. He said he was “Unaware” he’d taken an illegal drop. After the fact, he accepted a two stroke penalty, changed his card, was not DQ-ed and played the next day. What was difference?……. ” You don’t DQ Tiger from a Masters”?? Not picking on Tiger at all, just saying if the player IS unaware of an error there should always be the same remedy. In the scorers tent, they have to recite their score on each hole from memory. I don’t think Jordan was trying to cheat, he was just unaware of an error, also.

      Reply

      rob17452

      2 months ago

      I think the DQ is appropriate, at the end of the day each player is responsible for their score. Think of the DQ as a suspension without pay for failing to follow company rules/protocols.

      Reply

      XY

      2 months ago

      DQ. Every golfer knows the penalty. 2 stroke penalty? For signing for the wrong score? That’s a slippery slope. Take a look at an NBA game lately? If you didn’t grow up in my era, you’d think picking up the ball and taking 4 steps to the hoop was legal. You know what they say, give ’em an inch.

      Reply

      Joseph Parent

      2 months ago

      To get disqualified for signing an incorrect scorecard has always been at the heart if honesty and fair play. However, I agree that it’s time for an update to this rule. Both players need to be present to turn the score cards in. This is simple and it would seem easily enforceable. Next, if something goes wrong with the above a 2-stroke penalty to me seems like more than sufficient enough punishment on the tour level.

      Reply

      Branden

      2 months ago

      There’s nothing wrong with the rule and it should not be changed. Why? Say it is cut day like with him, officials aren’t out to make decisions if it was a honest mistake or not just enforcement of the rules. But say he got away with it, but his score he put down actually moved the cut line knocking 2 or 3 people from the event. That’s fair to those people? What gets lost is if he had signed for a worse score they would have said “ok, that’s your score now even though you marked that wrong”. So no, getting DQ’d is not too severe of a punishment.

      Reply

      XY

      2 months ago

      Well said! And appropriate for the question on professional tournaments with a cut. Doesn’t address tournaments with no cut line. Should we bifurcate the rules as well as balls and other equipment?

      Reply

      Dom D

      2 months ago

      Spent a year caddying on the then “Nike Tour” now Korn Ferry. My player (and I worked for three in tournaments) all made me keep their scores as well. We would check them in the scoring tent before they signed their card. Please don’t take the accountability out of this game. As a whole our society wants to blame the “other guy” when even Jordan took responsibility for it, as he should. He and and his caddy both could have and should have found the error. Sean’s editorial was right on, if you want to lower the penalty to two strokes, OK, but the error is significant and the punishment I feel is warranted. Honesty, integrity, and accountability = competitive, tournament golf.

      Reply

      john

      2 months ago

      After having worked the scoring area, I agree that the players should be required to stay in the scoring area until the others playing in the group have arrived and they agree on the score on the card to be signed. It does seem a bit antiquated, but moving on from the signed card will most likely present other issues.

      Reply

      Andrew the Great!

      2 months ago

      You covered everything beautifully and completely. (Except for the IRS part; they don’t know, in advance, what anyone owes. They only know bits and pieces of your tax profile for any given year (based on information returns filed by others).)

      The simplest, most efficient, most trustworthy method for keeping golfers’ scores is exactly how it’s done now. Was Spieth (and the other hundred golfers) supposed to call up ShotLink or the walking scorers or CBS or Jim Nantz to find out what they shot after their rounds? How asinine would that be?! Spieth wrote his scores down on a document in his possession; his fellow-competitor did the same. If that’s not easy enough for a golfer to submit a correct scorecard, then he *should* be penalized. I mean, it’s a sport where the players call penalties ON THEMSELVES! But they can’t keep their own scores, and should use (fallible) outside agencies instead? Good grief.

      And I agree, a two-stroke penalty seems more fair than DQing.

      Reply

      Patrick Renaud

      2 months ago

      One of the first things I noted in Sean’s post is that golf is an old game with some antiquated rules. Many of the strange rules have been changed over the last few decades. There has also been so many equipment changes that golfers from just 3 decades ago would not recognize the clubs Pros use today. Why not change the personal scoring and DQ rule! Technology all around, especially the Pro Tours, should be used for scoring. Clearly, pencil and paper personal scoring has to keep up with the advances made throughout the other world of sports. The DQ rule is obviously a deterrent aimed at cheaters. I have seen many occasions when Pros DQ themselves before the tournament organizers even question the players. If cheating is observed, then DQs should apply but then and only then.

      Reply

      Terry Hurst

      2 months ago

      Keep it the same as it is now but then add another check point. Keep the card in “unofficial status” after the player checks and signs his card.
      Then compare all numbers to the electronic version from TV (walking scorer, etc) and if everything matches add a place for the player to initial and then turn the “official” card in.
      There still could be errors even with the triple check but if there is rethink the penalty for this, put it in the rules book and proceed!

      Reply

      Michael Millar

      2 months ago

      Couldn’t disagree more. It’s a stupid, anachronistic rule that serves no purpose in modern pro golf.

      Reply

      Patrick Renaud

      2 months ago

      I agree with Michael Miller 100%.

      Reply

      Andrew the Great!

      2 months ago

      Sean wrote a number of reasoned arguments for keeping the system as it is.

      Can you rebut his arguments with reason? All you did was wave your hand and say “nope”.

      Now take some time to tell us how it SHOULD be: who should be responsible for a player’s score, and how, and when the score would be judged official, and what if any punishment should exist, and to whom, when a mistake is made.

      Give us your idea of a model system for keeping golf scores, not just at the PGAT level but in golf tournaments around the world and at every level.

      Reply

      Ian McInnes

      2 months ago

      I agree, been playing for over 45 years and made the same mistake TWICE. YEAH a DQ is harsh but an incorrect card is deemed CHEATING, so the penalties are harsh and all golfers know this. In pro golf a single shot could be worth hundreds of thousands in money.

      Reply

      TailWagger

      2 months ago

      Personally, I think its time to stop pretending that were all playing the same game as old Tom. But fine, if the whole point of having a playing partner keep score is to assure the integrity of the game than why is it that when playing partners get it wrong there is ZERO consequence to them? What prevents a competitor from taking a potential shot at getting rid of some competition by slipping in an error on purpose? AFAIC, if you’re going to DQ the player, the scorer should suffer the same fate. Too draconian? Then minimally assess a two stroke penalty for their half of the mistake.

      Reply

      Andrew the Great!

      2 months ago

      “What prevents a competitor from taking a potential shot at getting rid of some competition by slipping in an error on purpose?” The current system prevents it! The player is supposed to compare his own-kept score with the score kept on his official scorecard by his dishonest fellow competitor.

      There’s “ZERO consequence” to the one keeping your official scorecard because it’s not official until YOU verify his numbers. People make mistakes, and the current system is perfectly designed to avoid or correct the mistakes before the scorecard is official. It’s up to the player himself to utilize the perfectly designed current system to his benefit.

      Reply

      XY

      2 months ago

      A lot has changed about the game; gear, ball, course design. But it IS the same game. Give Old Tom my Stealth 2 and he’d still outdrive me from the grave. Changing the rules is a always a slippery slope that has to consider these factors, the explosion of new golfers and tournaments and now new professional organizations. The soul of the game is at stake with every rule change. The USGA and R&A know it and take great care to analyze even the smallest rule change so as to protect the history of the game while updating it to the needs of the modern era.
      But some things are protected, have to be protected. A large part of what makes golf attractive is the history of it. St. Andrews is hallowed ground.
      The Masters is a storied tournament that encourages comparison of past and present (and future) champions. The integrity and continuity of the game is based on the integrity of the players. That’s why the players go to the scoring tent and compare scorecards. Spieth keeps his own score and also Tom Kim’s. Kim does the same. They compare notes. That didn’t happen in this case. Spieth was sick, probably wanted to go someplace and lay down…but that shouldn’t recuse him from the rules, and he admits it himself. Yeah, getting DQ’d must really suck. Getting sick really sucks – I know that from personal experience. But DQ is the right remedy .

      Reply

      JBR

      2 months ago

      You are responsible for confirming your own score because golf is a game of personal accountability. That’s one of the things that makes it unique.

      Reply

      XY

      2 months ago

      Yep!

      Reply

      Terry

      2 months ago

      They know the rules .If they don’t check the card properly.
      Dq them .It’s simple follow the rules.

      Reply

      ericsokp

      2 months ago

      I don’t understand the need for your playing partner to keep your “official” scorecard … if golf is supposed to be such a game of integrity, you should keep your own score and not somebody else’s.

      Reply

      Zach

      2 months ago

      At many events where I have been officiating the Committee has defined the scoring area as a larger area (as much as the entire property) including things like nearby restrooms so that somebody has to really LEAVE to have left the scoring area. If an error is discovered while they are still close at hand it can be fixed since they have not left the scoring area yet. The Committee has discretion to define this area in a sensible way.

      Reply

      Gar,y

      2 months ago

      Missed point in Spieth’s case is he was about to crap his pants and needed, really needed, to get to the head. It’s funny when you are a multimillionaire playing golf. Would not have been so funny is he was struggling to make a living

      Reply

      KJC

      2 months ago

      Sure, we can have TV do the scoring. Hell, let’s have AI do the playing. Hey why not stop keeping score altogether. Or in the name of DEI, lets give everyone an equal score. That way no feelings are hurt.

      Reply

      PHDrunkards

      2 months ago

      No.
      If they can’t even check inside the scoring tent to make sure, then they should be DQ’ed. Which is why the Rules exist.
      You have every chance to double check before you sign it and hand it over for the last time. You have your playing partners and your own to make sure they match, and in these Pros’ cases, they have the scoreboard-walkers and officials too.
      It’s a Rule that keeps you honest. No need to change it

      Reply

      Jason S

      2 months ago

      At a minimum, each player should keep their own scores and compare it to the official PGA scores when in the finishing tent to ensure they sign a correct card. I also feel they should still keep their playing partner’s scores as well, just for a little checks and balances on the course. Especially if a player gets overly frustrated at a hole, or has one of those “blow up” holes that they may have lost count on.
      The current punishment was established before all the technology, cameras, and other things got out to the course with the players. When the game was purely a gentleman’s game and your score on your card was the only one. If you cheated and were caught, your punishment was severe enough to dissuade you from doing it again. But now, with all the “stuff” on the course with the players, this is not really required. So the punishment is far too severe now. Especially if your playing partner is keeping your official score and they screw up the final card.
      The Tour needs to get with the times and make appropriate changes to rules that no longer serve a true purpose, such as DQ for an improper card from the player or playing partner.

      Reply

      PHDrunkards

      2 months ago

      They do keep their playing partners’ scores. That’s how scoring is done. You’ve obviously never played in a proper sanctioned event by one of your Associations. At the start you are given your card, and you pass that to one of the others to score, as they give you theirs. That’s how it’s done.
      Technology should not come into it. It’s about the self-awareness of honesty and integrity.
      If they let this Rule go, then there would be no need for anybody to pay any attention, they’ll just be fixing it later, which is not a good way to go.
      They all have every opportunity to double check, when they step into the scoring tent, go over it hole by hole

      Reply

      Hefty Lefty

      2 months ago

      I am confused by the article. Supposedly Spieth was disqualified for signing for an incorrect score. The article says he signed his card and left the scoring area before Kim came in. He would have signed Kim’s card as marker, but how could he sign HIS card when it hadn’t been presented? Was he DQ’d for signing an incorrect card or not signing his card attesting his score?

      Reply

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