News & Opinion

Truth, justice and golf’s confounding rules

The lords of golf have proposed more than 100 changes to the Rules of Golf that would go into effect in 2019. In light of the current firestorm stemming from the unfortunate situation involving Lexi Thompson on Sunday at the ANA Inspiration, the USGA and R&A would be wise to head back to the drawing board and let truth and justice be their guiding light.

Once again, the excessive punishment didn’t fit the crime in golf, a sport that too often has sent someone to jail for going 4 mph over the speed limit. In this case, the LPGA’s review of a TV viewer’s email determined that Thompson a day earlier had breached rules 20-7c (playing from a wrong spot after not replacing her ball in the exact place) and 6-6d (signing for a lower score). In giving her a pair of two-stroke penalties, golf violated the life rule of common sense and suffered another black eye. If it weren’t Masters week, I’d propose a suspension.

Thompson learned of her fate after 12 holes of the final round and went on to lose a playoff to So Yeon Ryu, who would have become the most popular player in golf history had she intentionally driven out of bounds or chipped into water on the extra hole. For a while there, I kept waiting for golf to tell Thompson that it was just a stupid April Fools’ Day joke.

Tiger Woods and others have expressed objection to viewers’ reporting of violations. But if it’s truth we’re after, if truth should be the ultimate judge, there should be no problem getting reports from the great unwashed and reviewing before the competition is closed.

You don’t replace your ball properly on the green, then you get docked two shots, even though that might seem like one stroke too many for being a millimeter off. The problem in this case was the second two-shot penalty, for signing what was deemed to be a lower score. That's what made Thompson’s punishment far too extreme. Of course Thompson signed for an incorrect score; she didn't know there was a violation. 

Believe it or not, until last year her signing for a lower number would have resulted in disqualification. Hence the need now for further revision; the rules-makers didn’t go far enough in ensuring fairness.

And so it happens that Lexigate, the rules and the Masters collide now, fittingly really. You may recall the Masters had its own Category 5 rules controversy involving Woods in 2013. Despite objections from many corners, the Masters committee got it right and penalized Woods two strokes for unwittingly making a bad drop in Round 2 instead of disqualifying him.

The Woods situation underscored the value of timing, for he would have been DQ’d had the Masters committee not reviewed his drop before he signed the scorecard. 

The next day, PGA European Tour rules official John Paramor presented me with a fascinating hypothetical situation that screams the importance of timing. It involved a golfer with a one-stroke lead facing a 1-foot par putt on the last hole of the Masters. The player moves his coin out of a playing competitor’s line but forgets to move his mark back and taps in.

Paramor then: If the violation is reported (by a TV viewer or whomever) before the player signs his scorecard, the penalty is two strokes. If reported right after the player signs his card, the player would be disqualified. If reported after the player slips on the green jacket in Butler Cabin, he is the Masters champion.

Same rules violation, three difficult outcomes – separated by a few minutes if not seconds. Meanwhile, the truth never changed.

Jeff Rude has covered golf for more than 30 years, most notably for two decades with Golfweek, and has hosted multiple national TV and radio shows. He covered 82 consecutive major championships. Email: igolfrude@aol.com; Twitter: @JeffRudeGolf