USGA, R&A don't go far enough in addressing Lexi Thompson rule fiasco
Lexi Thompson returns to competition after three weeks licking her wounds inflicted by a TV viewer whose email pointing out a rules infraction cost her the ANA Inspiration, the first LPGA major of the year. This week's Volunteers of America Texas Shootout is a chance for Lexi to get back to playing, but it's also an opportunity for the LPGA to fix a problem virtually everyone seems to think needs to be corrected.
The marketing slogan for the LPGA is "See Why It's Different Out Here." That is for good reason. The athletes on the LPGA Tour are as media friendly and fan friendly as any pros in any league anywhere. I've always felt the most vocal critics of the LPGA are those who don't go to its events. Once you're there, you are hooked.
Now the tour has a chance to make its marketing mantra resonate in a very special way. The LPGA should unilaterally change three rules that are hated by both fans and players. Stop allowing TV viewers to email or call in penalties; stop assessing penalties a day after a round is played; stop punishing players for not recording a penalty they didn't know they had been assessed.
The LPGA can act unilaterally to change these rules. The pro tours, for example, play lift, clean and place as a local rule when the course is wet. The USGA never allows lift, clean and place at competitions like the U.S. Women's Open. It always plays the ball as it lies. The LPGA can make the rules change a condition of competition. However, the USGA could see such an action as a slight.
On Tuesday, the USGA and the R&A announced limited changes that do not eliminate viewer call-ins, second-day penalties or being punished for not recording a penalty unknown to the player. The governing bodies did say, however, they would convene a panel of pro players to look at the issue more broadly.
Tuesday's announcement said: "New Decision 34-3/10 implements two standards for Rules committees to limit the use of video: 1) when video reveals evidence that could not reasonably be seen with the 'naked eye,' and 2) when players use their 'reasonable judgment' to determine a specific location when applying the Rules." This doesn't seem to go far enough.
The absurdity of this situation came to light at the ANA when Thompson walked off the 12th green of the final round two strokes ahead and hit her drive off the 13th tee two strokes behind. That she birdied two of the next three holes and gutted her way into a playoff won by So Yeon Ryu with a birdie on the first extra hole was a testimony to Thompson's toughness, a part of her game at times questioned.
That social media lit up in outrage from players and fans alike and the fact those in the gallery at Mission Hills Country Club in Rancho Mirage, California, broke into chants of "Lexi! Lexi! Lexi!" were resounding statements that the punishment did not reflect the crime.
Thompson was whopped with a rarity even in the rules-obsessed world of golf: A four-stroke penalty. Well, technically, she was penalized two strokes for not returning her ball to its original place after she marked it -- missing by about a half-inch -- and then was hit with two more strokes because she signed a scorecard that did not reflect a penalty she didn't know she had incurred.
Let's be clear: The rules officials did the right thing. They enforced the rule as it now reads. The problem is not with the rules officials; it's with the rules. Call me a complete dunderhead, but it seems to me that if logic prevailed, the fix to prevent anything like this happening again is pretty simple.
(1.) Have a rules official watch TV and if they see something, say something. Otherwise, no harm, no foul. No phone calls, emails, text messages, carrier pigeons or mental telepathy from viewers allowed. Those folks will just have to validate their significance some other way.
(2.) Make every day Sunday. When the final scorecards are signed on Sunday, the tournament is officially over. A penalty learned about on Monday cannot be assessed. Let's treat every round that way. The Saturday round is over when all the cards are signed Saturday. No more penalties issued a day later.
(3.) What you don't know can't hurt you. How can you be penalized for signing a wrong scorecard if you didn't know it was wrong? Even if you penalized Thompson for not returning her ball to the same place -- and she did not replace it correctly -- how can she be penalized two additional strokes for not recording a penalty she didn't know she had? Of course, before last year she would have been disqualified for the infraction. That's a step in the right direction. Now it has to go all the way.
Thompson's agent, Bobby Kreusler of Blue Giraffe Sports, told espnW his player would face the media Wednesday in a pre-tournament interview at the Texas event. It will be interesting to hear what she has to say. Sources familiar with the situation say the pain deepened in the days after the ANA.
And you could see the process playing out on social media.
Thompson's career has already been successful. At only 22, she has seven LPGA wins, including a major championship, the ANA in 2014. An erratic short game has impeded her ability to contend to be the best in women's golf.
In a strange way, what happened at the ANA could be the spark she needs to ignite a special competitive fire within her. Reading her tweets, that seems to be happening. Just maybe what happened at the ANA also will push the LPGA into making a few reasonable rules changes. Seems like the fans -- and the players -- would love it.