Column: Rules Unfairly Rob Thompson of LPGA Major Title

When So Yeon Ryu, the winner of the LPGA Tour’s first major championship of 2017, says she doesn’t feel right about how she won, you know there’s a problem.

In Sunday’s final round of the ANA Inspiration, Lexi Thompson left the 12th green with a three-shot lead, strongly positioned for her second title in the event.

Then, the LPGA dropped a bombshell.

Rules official Sue Witters informed Thompson that she was being assessed a four-shot penalty after the LPGA had deemed that Thompson misplaced her ball when marking it on the 17th green in Saturday’s third round.

The violation had been discovered only after a television viewer, presumably watching Saturday’s round a day later on DVR, emailed the tour about the potential violation, after which officials reviewed video and penalized Thompson.

After the penalty, Thompson fought through tears to play the final six holes in 2-under, making three birdies including one on the final hole to reach a playoff.  She lost the sudden-death playoff to Ryu, who won her second major.

The violation itself is a two-stroke penalty, but given the circumstances two additional strokes were added for Thompson signing an incorrect scorecard in Saturday’s round.

Thompson, who fell from three ahead to one behind the lead, was understandably shaken by the sudden turn of events.

“Is this a joke?” Thompson asked, and after Witters confirmed she was serious, Thompson replied, “This is ridiculous.”

The golf community responded similarly to Thompson, with many, including the sport’s biggest name, showing their displeasure with the ruling on Twitter:

Based on the rules as written by the USGA, the ruling was correct.

“I can’t go to bed tonight knowing I let a rule slide,” Witters said. “It’s a hard thing to do, and it made me sick, to be honest with you.”

But the way it played out was certainly unfair, and begs the question whether some changes may be necessary.

Tiger Woods and the other professionals above have a point:  no other sport’s fans have the ability to call in (or, in this case, email in) potential violations they have seen from home on the event’s television broadcast.

This has an easy solution:  the PGA and LPGA Tours and other sanctioning bodies whose events are televised should place a rules official in the television truck, where they can watch the broadcast for potential violations and request replays or additional camera angles if necessary.

The potential for a fan at home to influence the officiating of an event, especially 24 hours later, is simply nonsensical.

The rule on signing an incorrect scorecard should also change in cases where the player has no intent of improving their score.  Penalizing Thompson, or any other player, two shots for not writing down a penalty that wouldn’t be discovered for another 24 hours is totally unfair to the competitor.

The original rule for signing an incorrect card was if the incorrect score was better than the player’s actual score, the player was disqualified.  Fortunately for Thompson, instead of being disqualified as she would have been with the original rule, a 2016 rule change made it a two-stroke penalty.

But that’s still unfair.  Thompson had no intent in signing an incorrect card, because she had no idea a penalty in her round was even possible.  Penalizing her for a review initiated by the LPGA upon a fan’s suggestion is completely unfair.

Enforcing such a penalty after 12 holes of the final round have been played is even more ridiculous.

Thompson entered the final round at 13-under par, leading Suzann Pettersen by two shots, and played from ahead through the first 12 holes.  Had she started the final round at 9-under, chasing the lead instead of protecting it, she would have played more aggressively to try to catch (and pass) the leader.  Instead, her strategy was different for two-thirds of her round because she had no clue she was about to be penalized.

There is no way this can be considered fair.  Knowing the “time and score” is immensely important for participants in any sport.  Reviewing a play in a “stick and ball” sport later in the game is unreasonable, which is why reviews in such sports can’t happen after the next play has begun.

In golf, it is legal for tournament officials to enforce a penalty from Saturday during Sunday’s round, but once the final player to finish the final round signs their scorecard, the tournament is considered over, so a penalty in Sunday’s round cannot be added on Monday.

For the fairness of all participants (the other players have a right to know where their opponents stand), it should be written into the USGA rules that a penalty cannot be added once the player has started their following round.

My proposal of a rules official in the television truck and no ruling suggestions from fans would help here too, because potential violations would come up immediately instead of hours later or the next day.

Unfortunately, this is not the first time in recent memory penalty strokes have come into play late in a major championship.  In the final round of last year’s U.S. Open at Oakmont, Dustin Johnson was notified on the 12th hole that he may or may not be penalized a stroke for his ball moving on the fifth green–the decision could only be made once officials and Johnson sat down with video evidence after the round–and had to finish the round not knowing if he was, for instance, leading by one stroke or tied.

In Johnson’s case, the penalty ended up not mattering, as he finished at 5-under, four shots ahead of the nearest challengers at 1-under, and won by three after the penalty dropped him to 4-under.

Thompson wasn’t as fortunate.  As a result, the 2016 U.S. Olympian still had a chance to win, which she narrowly missed, but was robbed of her fairest chance to win one of the biggest events in women’s golf.

Now, as the sport of golf enters its biggest event this week at The Masters, a black cloud hangs over the sport, with a real question of how fairly its rules may play out in the event of similar circumstances on its biggest stage at Augusta.

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