Lexi Thompson’s 4-Shot Penalty Puts Spotlight Back on Golf Rules

Ominous conversations between rules officials and professional golfers are becoming all too common at major events – to the detriment of the game.

Last year at Oakmont, Dustin Johnson was informed by an official during the final round of the U.S. Open that he might have caused his ball to move while preparing to putt earlier in the round, on a day when balls were moving spontaneously on the lightening-fast greens. (This was after the official with Johnson’s group initially determined there was no infraction.) The USGA further bungled the situation by failing to take action until after the round, leaving the leader’s score a matter of speculation for six holes. Fortunately, by the time officials made up their minds and assessed a 1-stroke penalty for the nearly imperceptible event, it was academic; Johnson had a 3-stroke margin of victory and captured his first major.

Yesterday, Lexi Thompson was much less fortunate. The dominant young American had a three-shot lead in the ANA Inspiration when, on her way to the 13th tee, she was approached by rules official Sue Witters, who presumably was not interrupting Thompson to compliment her on her play. Witter told an incredulous Thompson that a television viewer had called in to report a possible infraction during Saturday’s third round — yes, a day earlier.  Video review (becoming almost as common in golf as in NCAA tournament basketball games) revealed that, when Thompson replaced her ball on the putting green, she placed it slightly off her mark.  

Lexi Thompson

Lexi Thompson couldn’t fight back the tears after losing in a playoff Sunday.

Although the infraction was unintentional and had no effect on the competition, Witters had no choice but to give Lexi the bad news: under the inflexible and sometimes mystifying rules of golf, she was being penalized four strokes: two for improperly replacing the ball and two more for signing an improper scorecard.  Thompson’s three-stroke lead dematerialized faster than Jordan Spieth’s final round Masters’ lead after his close encounter with the water at the 12th hole at Augusta last year.  

But there was some good news here for Lexi; prior to the 2016 rules changes, she would have been disqualified. She merely had her lead stripped from her for an incident that occurred a day earlier and escaped the notice of everyone except some armchair rules official who happened to find the LPGA’s Fan Feedback site. Thompson was allowed to play on and try to overcome this horrifying setback. To her credit, she nearly did.  

I suspect this silver lining of escaping disqualification was lost on Lexi, however, as she tried to comprehend what Witters was saying. “Is this a joke?” she asked. When the truth hit home, she remarked: “This is ridiculous.” Witters was the proverbial messenger who felt nearly as bad as Thompson. “It’s a hard thing to do, and it made me sick, to be honest with you,” she said.

Of course, Witters was paid in full for the day, while Thompson lost a major title and $155,000.

Golf fans reacted with bewilderment and outrage when the LPGA’s decision became understood. Tiger Woods immediately came to Thompson’s defense on Twitter:

Lexi Thompson

Tiger Woods comes to Lexi Thompson’s defense on Twitter

In a remarkable feat of composure and determination, Thompson regrouped and birdied three of the final six holes to force a playoff with So Yeon Ryu, who had only to battle the tough Mission Hills Country Club course and not stale rules infractions. Ryo birdied the first playoff hole to win. She took the traditional victory leap into the pond; Thompson didn’t join her, having already been dunked by Witters.

But Thompson showed superb class.  Despite the excruciating loss, she took the time to sign dozens of autographs and put as positive spin as possible on the day. “Every day is a learning process,” she said. “I wasn’t expecting what happened today, but it happens, and I’ll learn from it and hopefully do better.” This should guarantee Thompson the LPGA sportsmanship award for 2017.

Yesterday, Thompson posted a photo on Instagram thanking her sponsors, fans and even her caddy for supporting and encouraging her after she lost the tournament. Her sportsmanship shows true class:

Lexi Thompson

Lexi Thompson posted a photo on Instagram after the ANA tournament yesterday

Now, the question is whether the LPGA and the PGA Tour will ever learn better from such rules fiascos, which undercut respect for the rules of golf among players and fans. Several years ago, after a string of controversial retroactive penalties imposed after viewer reports, PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem pledged to address the issue. (The USGA and R&A have steadfastly adhered to the position that spectator input is integral to rules enforcement.) Noting that incidents such as Thompson’s are “difficult and awkward,” Finchem said: “I think we need to do some more thinking about it. I think people in the game need to think about it.”

It’s not clear whether any serious thinking has gone on about the problem of armchair rules officials since Finchem’s comments, but there’s certainly been no action. At the least, the pro tours could consider a time limit on the use of such information – barring any evidence of intentional misconduct, decline to review incidents reported after the end of a round. The modification of the disqualification penalty for incorrect scorecards attributable to such incidents was long overdue, but the professional tours (if not the USGA and R&A) need to go further. The rules gurus at the USGA and R&A might balk at such an administrative solution. A suggestion, Tim: just don’t answer the phone.

There is hope. The recently proposed changes to the rules of golf, expected to be implemented in 2019, might provide relief for a player in Thompson’s situation. (See https://www.golfcontentnetwork.com/news/usga-modernize-the-rules-of-golf/). The proposed rules would allow more latitude for player judgment in various situations, including marking and replacing balls on putting greens. Provided that the player acted reasonably in replacing the ball, there would be no penalty even if a later video review determined that the ball was not placed on the correct spot. Hopefully, in time, the game of golf will eradicate painful experiences like that suffered by Thompson at the ANA Inspiration. Now that would be inspirational.