<
>

General agreement around Lexi Thompson ruling -- it stinks

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Only a month ago golf's governing bodies announced sweeping changes to the rules book that, if adopted, would bring a healthy dose of common sense.

Now, on the eve of the first men's major championship of the year, the game is faced with another bad look, the optimism of those proposed changes drowned in controversy.

Lexi Thompson saw a 4-stroke penalty ruin her chances of winning a major championship, the LPGA's ANA Inspiration on Sunday, due to a viewer email which questioned the way she replaced her ball after marking it on a green a day earlier.

The issue isn't so much the infraction -- from the replay, it appears that Thompson did not return her ball to the proper spot, even if it was off by less than an inch -- but the way it was discovered and enforced.

With an armchair rules official alerting real rules officials? Doing so a day after the fact? And assessing not only a 2-stroke penalty for the infraction, but another 2 strokes for signing an incorrect scorecard?

"As long as you've got people calling and putting their 2 cents in on rulings, we're going to have issues like this arise,'' said Brandt Snedeker after a practice round Monday at Augusta National, site of this week's Masters.

"Unfortunately, golf can't seem to get past hindsight and being perfect on every ruling. There was no intent there to do anything wrong. Trying to rush to get out of the way. It just boggles my mind that there was a 4-shot penalty with six holes to go. It boggles my mind. I don't think (it was) the right thing to do. I've never seen that before.''

As he spoke, Snedeker was mere yards from the site of perhaps the most infamous rules issue in the game's history. In 1968, Robert de Vicenzo was denied a spot in a playoff with Bob Goalby at the Masters when it was learned that de Vicenzo had signed for an incorrect score on the 17th hole of the final round.

Tommy Aaron, who was recording de Vicenzo's score, wrote down a par-4 instead of the 3 that De Vicenzo had made on the hole. The Argentine missed it when he signed the card, and therefore it stood.

Instead of being part of an 18-hole playoff the next day, de Vicenzo finished a stroke behind Goalby, famously saying afterward, "What a stupid I am.'' Nobody ever disputed that the score was incorrect, only that the scorecard was not signed properly.

In Thompson's case, LPGA rules officials were left with no choice but to investigate when someone emailed the tour that there was an issue with Thompson's mark the day previous. The rules of golf allow for any and all information to be used in investigating possible infractions, and tour rules officials determined that Thompson had failed to replace her ball properly. That's a 2-stroke penalty.

If it weren't for a new rule introduced in 2016, Thompson would have been disqualified; she had signed for a score that did not include the 2-stroke penalty. With the new rule, if video replay determines an infraction after the scorecard is signed, the committee can assess an additional penalty of 2 strokes, rather than disqualify the player.

"I think we've seen some stuff in the past year that is not making the game look very good at all,'' said Rickie Fowler, referring to the Dustin Johnson ruling at the 2016 U.S. Open and one that affected that Anna Nordqvist at the U.S. Women's Open, where Brittany Lang prevailed in a playoff.

"There's no other sport where people can call or email in or contact officials regarding an issue,'' Fowler said. "There's plenty of circumstances in plenty of other sports where a call could go a completely different way, and these decisions are left up to officials. There's not people sitting at home dictating this or in this case having a lot of effect on the outcome of a major. So it was really unfortunate to see how it was handled.''

Fowler's lament is a common theme. Players seem against the idea of those watching on TV being able to point out violations. Tiger Woods tweeted about it in defense of Thompson on Sunday night. "Once you've signed your scorecard, or the round is over, it should be done,'' said Brooks Koepka on Monday.

Such a change would require a revision to the rules book and among the proposed changes for 2019 is a new clause that "your reasonable judgment will not be second-guessed'' based on later evidence. So it's possible in that scenario that Thompson would have incurred no penalty at all if it was determined that her ball was not incorrectly replaced.

But we are a long way from that.

In the meantime, another tournament has been marred by a rules controversy, and in this case even winner So Yeon Ryu is a victim, too. She almost seemed apologetic in victory.

"I heard about it on the range so I don't know exactly what happened,'' said Johnson, whose ball moved a fraction backward at Oakmont in the U.S. Open -- and he was later deemed to have caused the movement. "But it's always tough. A tough thing to handle. But she (Thompson) is a good player. I think she'll be all right.''

That was tough to see through Thompson's tears on Sunday night. Johnson managed to overcome his rules issue at Oakmont by playing a solid back nine that included a 1-stroke penalty. For Thompson, it was 4 strokes, and it cost her a major title.