News & Opinion

Golf struggles to define social-media boundaries

We have seen it over and over during the past two years. There were the television call-ins, first with Dustin Johnson at Oakmont, then with Anna Nordqvist at CordeValle. The U.S. Golf Association promised to handle things better, to eliminate the awkwardness and clarify the rules. It took steps to do so.

Then in April came the putt-marking controversy with Lexi Thompson, another seemingly insignificant rules issue with gigantic ramifications (“4-stroke penalty stuns Thompson at ANA,” April 3, bit.ly/2nxsvFa). The governing bodies responded quickly. Legislation was adopted that requires such violations to be noticed with the naked eye, language that would have spared Nordqvist in that U.S. Women’s Open playoff loss to Brittany Lang (“Looser rules guidelines offer convenient excuses,” April 26, http://bit.ly/2oKWREu)

It also was decreed that a penalty can be waived if officials think that an offending player made a “reasonable judgment” in taking a drop or replacing a ball on the putting green. At the Irish Open a few weeks later, Jon Rahm appeared to “play it forward” while replacing his ball on the sixth green at Portstewart. The Thompson incident notwithstanding, rules official Andy McFee chose not to penalize Rahm. 

Given Rahm's tendency to accept adversity like Sonny Corleone, perhaps it was best for the safety of those nearby. 

The point is, no matter how it tries, golf continues to face a conundrum with television, cyberspace and social media.

“We're all responsible for applying rules and calling penalties on ourselves,” said Thomas Pagel, the USGA’s senior director of rules. “But we've seen situations where there is no way the player or anyone around the player could be aware of that. When dealing with video evidence, should we be holding players to a high standard simply because they're on television?”

Two things about that statement underline the problem. One, in golf everyone is responsible for knowing and applying the rules. That is, everyone is empowered: the people holding a club, holding a bag, holding a clipboard … and at home holding a remote.

There is no other endeavor held to that standard – not baseball, not brain surgery, not crab fishing in the Bering Sea. 

And second, as Pagel points out, not everyone is held to the same level of accountability, only those captured on TV. But, as an incident at the recent U.S. Girls’ Junior Championship at Boone Valley Golf Club in Augusta, Mo., illustrated, it’s more than that.

Because, at the same time everyone is empowered to be rules officials, there is no way to hold them to it, no way to account for level of expertise, for rationality or for responsibility. And while you might be able to legislate what takes place on the golf course, you can't control what takes place off of it.

During a semifinal match at the Girls’ Junior, Elizabeth Moon had a chance to close out Erica Shepherd with a 3½-foot putt on the first playoff hole. Moon missed, and in frustration she raked the ball away, assuming that her next putt was conceded. But it wasn't. In fact, Moon’s actions were so immediate, Shepherd didn’t have a chance to concede the putt. 

Thus, Moon was penalized one stroke, lost the match because of it, and social media turned Shepherd into Cruella de Vil.

Moon’s violation of Rule 18-2 (http://bit.ly/2x9t4Ky) was clear, not controversial. And, despite Shepherd’s efforts to post-concede the putt and have the ruling overturned, the penalty was enforced. Keep in mind that the match simply would have been extended otherwise, not awarded to Moon. 

But – irrationally and irresponsibly – observers took to social media and slammed Shepherd as if she had hired Shane Stant to hit Moon in the knee with at 3-iron.

One Twitter post read: I hope Jennifer Chang, waxes Erica Shepherd … Took the easy way out …Petty … don’t deserve to be in the ‘ship #USGirlsJunior 

Another read: Erica Shepherd with the most pitiful and embarrassing display at #USGirlsJunior … this one will haunt her for a long time

Many more messages were similar in tone, and some were more inappropriate.

Shepherd is a 16-year old girl from Greenwood, Ind. She was in the midst of one of the biggest moments of her young life and, for reasons totally beyond her control, she was socially bullied and brutalized. 

Somehow, she had to be the adult. Somehow, she had to get control of her emotions, clear her head and play a 36-hole final on Saturday. And she did … with the help of Chang. 

As the finalists prepared on Saturday morning, the 17-year-old Chang stopped to ask Shepherd how she was holding up. The embattled Shepherd broke into tears. Chang, who is from Cary, N.C., gave her opponent a hug. She told her to not worry about what others were saying, not let the distractions get to her, not lose confidence in herself. She told her to go out and play her best.

Shepherd did. She beat Chang, 3 and 2, to become a USGA champion.

Let’s face it: golf is having a hard time getting its arms around today’s borderless media. Its complex rules and exacting standards will continue to wrestle with accessibility and accountability.    

But golf has these twin virtues, sportsmanship and integrity, that make it worth the struggle.

Dan O’Neill, who covered golf for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch from 1989 to 2017, is an editorial consultant on golf for Fox Sports. His articles have appeared in publications such as Golfweek, Golf World, Golf.com and The Memorial magazine. Email: dan13153@gmail.com; Twitter: @WWDOD