Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 6, 2017

Golf Tours Should Ignore The Rules Police

The videotape was by no means the first of its kind, which made the announcement that followed all the more stunning. With North Carolina leading by a point and under a minute to play in Monday night’s national title game, the Tarheels’ Kennedy Meeks grabbed a rebound, only to have the ball knocked loose by Gonzaga’s Przemek Karnowski. Meeks and Zags’ guard Silas Melson went to the floor in a struggle for the loose ball, which wound up between Meeks’s legs. After a few seconds an official standing behind the baseline whistled the play dead. UNC had the possession arrow, so the Tarheels retained the ball. Gonzaga never scored again, and Carolina claimed its sixth NCAA championship, 71-65.

Except that video of the frantic scramble for the loose ball clearly showed Meeks’s hand touching the floor beyond the baseline while the ball was between his legs. He should have been ruled out of bounds, with the ball going to Gonzaga. The presence of that official standing less than two feet away only made the blown call that much worse, as did the fact that by that point the officiating crew had essentially taken the game over by repeatedly calling fouls that only they could see and turning the climax of March Madness into a painfully slow slog for both teams.

The video quickly went viral as these things do nowadays, and Gonzaga fans wasted no time deluging NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis with phone calls and emails expressing outrage and demanding recompense. But even those complaining the loudest had to be shocked when NCAA President Mark Emmert appeared before the microphones Thursday morning to announce that UNC’s victory was being set aside. Saying that the film “clearly showed a rules violation,” Emmert ordered that the final fifty seconds of the game be replayed next Monday night. In addition, the NCAA leader announced that because Meeks “must have known” his hand was out of bounds and “should have come clean at the time,” he was being assessed a double technical foul. Thus the reset game will begin with the score 66-65 in favor of North Carolina, but Gonzaga will first shoot four three throws and then get possession of the ball.

As Gonzaga fans know all too well, the blown call and the videotape are all too real; while the paragraph about calls to and an announcement by the NCAA is pure fiction. But the notion of a reset game and a draconian penalty imposed after play had ended is apparently fantasy only because college sports aren’t run by the same people in charge of the major professional golf tours. That is the clear lesson to be drawn from last weekend, when what started as the first women’s major of the year devolved into a fiasco certain to drive away fans.

At number nine in the world at the start of the ANA Inspiration, Lexi Thompson is the highest ranked American woman golfer and 2014 winner of the tournament known for years as the Dinah Shore. Two strokes off the pace after an opening 69, the 22-year old seized the lead with a 67 on Friday. An identical score in Saturday’s third round gave Thompson a two-shot cushion over Suzann Pettersen and three over a quartet of pursuers heading into her final trip around the Mission Hills Country Club layout.

Her lead was still two as she walked to the 13th tee on Sunday, or so Thompson thought. But that’s when she was approached by a LPGA rules official who told Thompson that she had been assessed a pair of two-stroke penalties. A television viewer watching video replays of Thompson marking and replacing her ball on the 17th green during Saturday’s round had emailed the tournament office to inform the LPGA that Thompson had failed to replace her ball exactly in its original spot on the putting surface. While the message was sent on Saturday, it wasn’t opened until the following day. The rules of golf prescribe a two-stroke penalty for failing to return a marked ball to its original location, and a further two-stroke penalty for signing a scorecard that is incorrect, even though Thompson’s Saturday card only became so when the tour imposed the first penalty on Sunday.

Thompson’s immediate response was to ask “is this a joke?” Assured that it was not, she was first reduced to tears while waiting to hit her tee shot. But having gone from two shots ahead to two behind while walking from green to tee, she rallied to birdie both the 13th and 15th holes, and had a look at eagle on the par-5 18th that would have won the tournament. Instead she settled for another birdie that put her into a playoff with So Yeon Ryu. As word of the penalty ruling spread while she played the final five holes, spectators rallied to Thompson’s side. If crowd support alone could have won the tournament, she would have made the traditional leap into Poppie’s Pond at the end of the day despite the intervention by an armchair referee. But it was Ryu who birdied the first playoff hole to win her second career major.

This is scarcely the first time that someone sitting at home has changed the outcome of a golf tournament. But it really should be the last. In some cases calls or emails have come into the PGA Tour, LPGA or European Tour headquarters only after the self-appointed enforcer, who almost always remains comfortably anonymous, has reviewed a videotape multiple times using super slow motion or an application to magnify one part of the screen, in order to find an infraction that wouldn’t be apparent to the naked eye. One can’t help but wonder how many of these rules police can honestly say that they have never turned a ball over to improve their lie while playing a weekend round.

As the fictional basketball scenario above reminds us, players in no other sport are subjected to this sort of scrutiny. There is no rational reason for golfers to be treated differently or held to some special standard. Golf is a game in which players learn at an early age that they are responsible to themselves and the field. Professionals and amateurs alike regularly call penalties on themselves, and virtually every pro takes seriously her or his obligation to raise any suspect issue with their fellow competitor and if necessary a rules official.

Allowing viewers at home to pass judgment subjects some but not all players to a different level of scrutiny. Had Thompson been tied for tenth rather than leading on Saturday afternoon, there is little chance the broadcast would have lingered on her marking and replacing her ball prior to putting. How many other times during the ANA Inspiration might a player have replaced her ball half an inch from its original position, without a camera focused on the action? Obviously it is impossible to know. What’s certain is that Thompson was facing little more than a tap-in on 17; her inadvertent error did nothing to provide her with any kind of competitive advantage.

Golf is a hard game with strict and occasionally byzantine rules. Recently the USGA and R&A have announced several proposed rule changes to take effect next year, all of which are designed to make the game more user-friendly. Any good that might come from that effort is now more than offset, at least in the near term, by the spectacle of a major tournament turning on an email. It was unfair not just to Thompson, but to Ryu as well since it cast a pall over her eventual victory. The tours are under no obligation to accept the entreaties of fans sitting at home, and the smart move would be to announce that such calls and emails will henceforth be ignored. Even before the ANA Inspiration was over, many LPGA and PGA Tour players took to social media to express their outrage about what had happened to Lexi Thompson. One of the first was the greatest player of his age, who tweeted “viewers at home should not be officials wearing stripes.” On Sunday afternoon, Tiger Woods was exactly right.


  1. Another great piece.

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