The Rules of Golf Have Officially Cost Someone a Major Championship

By Tyler Olson

lexy cryingLexi Thompson played the ANA Inspiration, the LPGA’s first major of the year, in four fewer shots than any of her competitors.  But, because golf, she lost in a playoff.

On Sunday, Thompson was walking from the twelfth green to the thirteenth tee when she was approached by a rules official with some unfortunate news. A TV viewer noticed that while marking her ball on the seventeenth green, she moved the ball about a half of an inch to the side. That viewer sent an email to alert the LPGA, who confirmed the accusation with replay.

Thompson was assessed two strokes for playing the ball from the wrong spot (again, a half inch from its original location) and two more strokes for signing for the wrong score on the seventeenth hole.

As happened when Dustin Johnson was assessed a similar penalty for (maybe) causing his ball to move as he addressed a putt in the US Open, the golf world came together behind Thompson.

Fellow pro golfers voiced their support for her on Twitter:

Tiger Woods, who experienced a similar situation with a viewer calling in a penalty during the 2013 Masters, said, “Viewers at home should not be officials wearing stripes. Let’s go @Lexi, win this thing anyway.”

Smylie Kaufman opined, “Unbelievable. Such a shame for @Lexi. The guy eating cheetos at home shouldn’t have a say in the outcome.” After some backlash regarding the perceived knock on both Cheetos and the golf viewing public, he clarified, “My comment was only directed to the person who sent the email changing the outcome of a major! And for the record I like cheetos. #lexigate.”

Justin Thomas also decried the allowance if armchair referees in the professional game. He said, “Whatever number this is that people can call in, it needs to go away. Hoping it doesn’t cost @Lexi!”

Even caddies got in on the action. Brian Gay’s caddie, Kip Henley, tweeted, “Who and how are these ‘arm chair’ rules officials calling? I can’t even reach someone to see if there’s a rain delay for my guy!”

Besides the social media media outreach, fans at the ANA Inspiration showered Thompson with “Lexi” chants that brought her to tears.

Despite the setback, Thompson managed to gut out some birdies and finish tied for the lead at -14 with So Yeon Ryu. Thompson, however, lost to Ryu on the first playoff hole.

Where golf dodged a bullet in last year’s US Open when Dustin Johnson managed to win the tournament despite being assessed a bush-league penalty after-the-fact, it took a big hit with this penalty costing Thompson a major.

First off, when an NBA player looks like he traveled or committed a foul, fans cannot call into the game and suggest the referees call a penalty. Same in the NFL and the MLB and in every other professional sports league out there.

As I write this, I’m watching the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship. Gonzaga’s center, Prezmek Karnowski, took about seven and a half steps in the paint before putting in a layup. The referees missed the call. That call will not be reversed by a fan like myself emailing the NCAA. That would just be dumb.

Secondly, the enforcement of the location of the ball when being marked is unnecessarily strict. What other sport is so strict regarding fractions of inches?

Spots in the NFL are notoriously inexact. While they’re sometimes challenged and reviewed, this happens only when the spot can significantly affect the outcome of a game – specifically on possible first-downs and scores. Thompson’s penalty was assessed on a very short putt in a situation where her small movement of the ball gave her no competitive advantage.

Basketball refs aren’t unnecessarily strict during throw-ins, when the ball is put back into play from the location where it went out of bounds. Neither are soccer referees.

Baseball strike zones are entirely left to the discretion of the umpire with no second guessing.

Finally, why would we penalize Thompson for signing a wrong scorecard when she had no idea that she violated a rule with how she replaced her ball? I understand that one of the things that makes golf a unique game is that we trust the players to honestly police and call penalties on themselves, but does anyone actually think that what Thompson does wasn’t an honest mistake?

Does anyone believe that move of the ball gave her a competitive advantage? What about Tiger Woods, when he dropped his ball three feet behind where it previously was from the middle of the fifteenth fairway in the 2013 Masters? Or Dustin Johnson when his ball oscillated a fraction of a revolution in the US Open?

When the rules of the game cause the person (who didn’t intentionally cheat or gain any competitive advantage from her “violation”) who played the golf course in four fewer strokes than any of her fellow competitors to finish without a win, the rules of the game are bad.

The recently proposed changes from the USGA and the R&A were certainly a good start on the road to modernizing and simplifying the game of golf, but they’re just that – a start. There will be years and years of work involved in the process of paring down the byzantine monstrosity that is the Rules of Golf to something that does more to facilitate fair play of the game than discourage new players from picking it up.

Both Thompson and Ryu handled the situation with extremely well, reflecting positively on the game when the game itself failed to do so. The only thing I wish Ryu would’ve done was ask Thompson to jump into Poppie’s Pond with her. That would’ve been a powerful image and a rallying point for those trying in earnest to save golf from itself.

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