Only a few players can claim to have caused changes to the sacred Rules of Golf.
Sam Snead’s croquet-style putting was banned. Jeff Maggert struck himself with a shot from a fairway bunker at the Masters when it caromed off a lip, and that penalty was reduced later from two shots to one. Dustin Johnson watched his golf ball move on the green at Oakmont last summer although he never touched it or grounded his putter behind the ball, yet he was penalized. That rule was revised.
Now we have “The Lexi Thompson Rule.” The U.S. Golf Association and the R&A, golf’s governing bodies, reacted to her four-shot penalty and subsequent loss in the ANA Inspiration (“4-stroke penalty stuns Thompson at ANA,” April 3, bit.ly/2nxsvFa) and enacted looser rules on violations that can’t be seen by “the naked eye” and allow for more common sense and “reasonable judgment” (“Looser rules guidelines offer convenient excuses,” April 26, http://bit.ly/2oKWREu).
This rule would’ve been applied to loud applause last year when Anna Nordqvist played a stroke from a fairway bunker in the U.S. Women’s Open playoff. Only a TV cameraman using a zoom lens noticed that she disturbed a few stray micro-grains of sand with her backswing. After he informed officials, she was penalized in mid-playoff. It seemed like overzealousness, at best.
But let’s not put Thompson’s case in this category. She mismarked her ball, a clear violation of Rule 20-3 (“Placing and Replacing”). Opponents of her penalty were angry that a TV viewer called in the infraction 24 hours after the fact.
Those critics missed the point. It’s an easy question: Did she or didn’t she break the rules?
The same question was salient in the Michelle Wie controversy in the 2005 Samsung World Championship, her professional debut, when my former Sports Illustrated colleague Michael Bamberger informed officials a day later that she took a questionable drop. Upon further review, she’d taken an illegal drop and was disqualified. (Rule 6-6d was changed in 2016 to substitute a penalty rather than disqualification when a golfer signs for a lower score.)
With Wie and with Thompson, why did opponents in both cases criticize the one person smart enough to notice the violations instead of the players who committed them?
Unlike Nordqvist’s error, Thompson’s infraction could be seen by the naked eye. I watched the video several times and came to this conclusion: She marked her ball an inch to the side, perhaps to avoid some kind of imperfection in the green. It looked totally intentional. Nobody I know who plays tournament golf, amateur or professional, would replace a ball that way because of carelessness.
Although she said it wasn't her intent to break the rule, she has offered no explanation. Nobody wants to call her out because she is a nice person and one of the most popular players on the LPGA.
I’d like to believe she simply took what she considered to be the same professional courtesy afforded to her fellow tour players, that it’s OK to fudge slightly when replacing a ball in order to avoid some unfair defect. She just happened to get caught doing it on TV.
I was not a fan of the four-shot penalty that Thompson received. I believe in correcting a player’s score to what it should have been without additional penalty. Thompson incurred two shots for marking her ball incorrectly, then two more for having signed for a lower score. That’s double jeopardy. Just add two and move on.
Golf’s governing bodies are setting themselves up for a much bigger black eye with this knee-jerk and a little-too-vague loosening of the rules.
Although the Thompson affair was embarrassing, it would’ve been far worse if she had won by one stroke, say, and then it was learned that she committed an earlier two-shot violation that officials overlooked due to “reasonable judgment” under the new guidelines.
She would have been a bogus champion. That title always would have an asterisk, possibly even a lawsuit from another player.
Only one question matters when it comes to the Rules of Golf: Was a violation committed? Blaming a TV viewer for noticing a violation misses the point.