Once again golf shoots itself in the foot over Lexi Thompson rules fiasco

When will golf stop knocking progress back by poor handling of overly strict rules?

Golfer Lexi Thompson has been denied her second major championship win after she was awarded a four-stroke penalty when a TV viewer emailed officials to alert them to her misplacing her ball on the 17th green. Video: NBC Sports

 

Not again? Surely the pompousness that still exists in game of golf had not reared its ugly head once again over the catastrophic handling of a rules infringement?

It quickly became apparent that it had.

Holding a three shot lead with six holes to play in the final round of the first women’s major of the year, Lexi Thompson was informed that she had been penalised four shots for misplacing her ball on the 17th green in the third round – a full day beforehand.

That’s two shots for misplacing the ball and a further two shots because she had signed for the wrong score.

The 22-year-old showed superb resolve to birdie two of the last six holes, tie South Korea’s So Yeon Ryu and force a playoff before Ryu birdied the first extra hole to deny Thompson a second major title, leaving the American in shock – and in tears – at what had unfolded.

But which LPGA rules official was it that spotted the incorrect replacing of the ball and duly called the foul?

Well the answer to that is none. It was in fact a television viewer who had been watching so carefully that they noticed the infringement and emailed the LPGA.com fan feedback portal to notify them.

Last year Dustin Johnson was told during the final round of the US Open that he may have moved his ball on the fifth green but a penalty would not be assesed until after the round. The following month Brittany Lang defeated Anna Nordqvist in a playoff at the US Women’s Open after Nordqvist had been penalized for brushing the sand in a fairway bunker – an infraction brought to the USGA’s attention by a Fox Sports cameraman. And now this.

Dustin Johnson talks to a rules official on the fifth green during the final round of the U.S. Open. Photo: John Minchillo
Dustin Johnson talks to a rules official on the fifth green during the final round of the U.S. Open. Photo: John Minchillo

Three of the last seven majors in the men’s and women’s games have been spoiled by the dreadful handling of penalising players. The first day of Masters week – traditionally the beginning of the golfing season and one of the highlights of the year – has been dominated by fiasco.

When will golf learn?

In Ireland alone, male golf club membership has dropped from 177,000 back in 2008 to 130,000 last year, according to the GUI. In the United States, the National Golf Federation reports that participation rates in the sport dropped a full six million in the 10 years from 2004 to 2014. It is a similar story in England where 729,300 people play golf once a week, compared to 889,100 10 years ago, according to Sport England data.

The European Tour has been proactive in pushing new forms of the game – such as the GolfSixes event set for early May – and generally moving the game forward by playing music on the driving range and allowing players to wear shorts during practice rounds.

These are all innovations brought in in the hope of leaving behind the dark ages in which golf was a game for the elite and no one else. They are aimed at making the sport ‘cooler’, particularly to younger generations. Players like Rickie Fowler and Rory McIlroy are a huge influence in that when it comes to the clothes they were, how they interact on social media and, generally, how they conduct themselves.

Rickie Fowler and Rory McIlroy have been instrumental in moving golf forward. Photo: Rob Carr/Getty Images
Rickie Fowler and Rory McIlroy have been instrumental in moving golf forward. Photo: Rob Carr/Getty Images

And then, once again, all of that work takes a battering when an incident like this occurs. What person looks at the events of Sunday night and feels compelled to get into golf?

Who would want to be ruled over by petty regulations and enforcers who often seem to revel in holding that power and sticking to the rules to the nth degree. Enforcers who seem to find the concept of discretion and common sense completely alien.

“Is this a joke?” Thompson asked when rules official Sue Witters informed her of the penalty as she was walking from the 12th green to the 13th tee.

The rest of the golfing world asked the same thing but quickly realised that this wasn’t some late April Fool’s prank by the LPGA.

The only joke in this instance was that golf had once again allowed someone sitting on a couch to influence the very highest level of the game.

Back in 2011 there were similar incidents with Padraig Harrington and Camillo Villegas while Julie Inkster was the last woman to be on the end of a viewer’s wrath in 2010.

All these years later, people at home are still being afforded the power to alter results. What other sport does this happen in?

What would happen if a viewer rang Fifa to say that the winning goal in a World Cup final had been offside? Or if a fan had analysed a pass in a rugby match, deemed it to be forward, and contacted the relevant authorities?

The answer is that they would be ignored. Officials are appointed to officiate. No one else is.

In this instance the people paid to spot these infringements did not do so. The eitiquette of golf demands that if a player breaks a rule they should do the honourable thing and penalise themselves. Thompson did not do this – it would be a very harsh assessment indeed to believe that she spotted the fractional movement and opted to say nothing – and the officials did not spot it. End of story, get on with it.

It must be noted that Witters said it made her sick to inform Thompson of the indiscretion but that she simply had to do her job.

However, if the viewer had left it a further few hours until after the round to contact the LPGA, nothing could have been done. Once the 72 holes are completed the result stands.

Unfortunately for the 22-year-old they got in touch just in time.

Thompson’s ball moved only a matter of milimetres but those few milimetres have, ultimately, set golf back much further than that.

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