Apr
3
2017
Follow-up on Lexi’s controversial penalty: Don’t shoot the messenger
By Stephanie Wei under LPGA

Leave it to yet a(nother) incredulous and absurd rules controversy to cloud the discussion and news coming out of Augusta National on Monday of arguably the biggest week in golf. In a regard, I’m glad the ANA Inspiration, one of the five majors in the women’s game, is actually getting attention, and the stories aren’t lost in the usually overwhelming joy and coverage of Masters previews as they have in years past.

Unfortunately, the spotlight isn’t on celebrating a great champion, but it’s golf’s latest rules debacle, which isn’t exactly the most flattering look for a niche sport that seems obsessed with the never-ending discussing on “growing the game.” Well, letting absurd rules incident play out dramatically on live television isn’t doing golf any favors.

As you know, Lexi Thompson received a four-stroke penalty for an infraction that occurred in the third round and retroactively added to her score, and ultimately cost her the title at a major championship. She was informed by LPGA rules official Sue Witters as Lexi, who was leading the championship, made her way to the 13th hole in the final round. Witters received an email from am armchair rules official, who was not known to her, according to Beth Ann Nichols’ report:

Witters said she did not recognize the email address of the person who brought the infraction to the tour’s attention. She looks into all the calls and emails that come in, and when she took a look at the video from Saturday’s round it made her “sick.” But what could she do?

“I can’t go to bed at night knowing that I let a rule slide,” she said.

I speculated that these call-ins or emails are usually from off-duty rules officials or industry insiders and rules experts known to tournament and on-site rules officials, as they often have been in the past, because it’s not like there’s some hotline or special email address for TV vigilantes.

It appears this case is unique, and for whatever reason — like “protecting the field” — this concerned viewer felt compelled to notify the LPGA nearly 24 hours after the infraction incurred. The identity and circumstances surrounding this person’s intentions are still unknown, and while I think TV rules vigilantes need to find a more productive hobby, I also don’t think he/she should be tarred-and-feathered by an angry town mob. Nor should Witters, who did apply the Rules of Golf correctly as they are written; however illogical and maddening as it may seem.

Missy Jones provided insight on the issue from the perspective of a rules official:

There are some who feel Committees shouldn’t take call in information but data is data. It doesn’t matter if it is video evidence, spectator evidence or an official who sees it from another fairway. The rules team owes it to the field to protect them with all the information available. The Committee has an obligation to enforce the rules and they hate this type of thing more than anybody. Nobody wants to see this happen but they must enforce the rules. Maybe we won’t have this type of situation with the implementation of the proposed rules changes announced March 1st.

Yep. The officials are just doing their jobs and it sucks, but like I keep saying, don’t shoot the messenger.

I bring up the “blame game” because of the overwhelming number of comments via social media in response to the incident. In general, it’s simply not really constructive — I prefer coming up with solutions.

I’m also familiar enough with the Rules of Golf and played at a high enough level competitively as a junior and college golfer that I understand the rationale behind Rule 20-7c and I believe it serves an important purpose, but nothing is perfect. It is indeed being tweaked, but the amendment won’t go into effect until 2019.

Lexi said it was not her intent (and no one ever accused or assumed such) to replace her ball in the wrong position after marking. From the video, it appears she was moving it for alignment purposes as part of a pre-shot routine and habit. However, there are cases where players may move the ball slightly out of the way of spike mark or indentation (that isn’t a fixable ball mark), etc. It’s not often, but it does happen more than we’d like to think.

There are current and former Tour pros who have had a reputation of sliding their ballmark under the ball and then replacing it a few centimeters in front of the ball. It may sound silly to most of you, but this is considered “cheating” from just about everyone on the junior golf level to the PGA Tour. And it’s definitely NOT a reputation anyone wants to develop. When this issue comes up, I refer to it as pulling a “name of former Tour player,” who was a well-known offender for a very long time and had been called out by his peers, according to my knowledge.

In recent years, I saw a high-profile player at a high-profile tournament that he ended up winning commit a pretty obvious infraction of this rule. I was sitting behind the green and I wasn’t super close, but it was so blatant, there was no question. I  didn’t need slo-mo or HD TV. My friend, who was sitting next to me and a casual golf fan, also saw it and turned to me with a look of shock on his face and said, “That’s not OK, right?” Nope.

I had also heard “rumblings” from other Tour pros earlier in the year that the aforementioned player was guilty of this “habit,” but I had forgotten about it until this incident. It was pretty flagrant, too, but my first instinct wasn’t to go running to a rules official because I don’t see that as my place. At the time, I was mainly concerned because he may not have even consciously been aware of it and I didn’t want him to get labeled as a “cheater.” I just hoped one of his peers or members of his “team” pointed it out to him, but I haven’t noticed it recently or even thought about it lately, to be honest.

Under the current Rules of Golf, Lexi did indeed commit an infraction on the 17th hole in the third round. No, it likely wasn’t her intent to break the rule or gain an advantage, but again, there are those who do have the “habit” I described above or may replace their ball in a questionable manner for more nefarious reasons. Had Lexi’s violation been caught at the time or before she signed her scorecard, or hell, perhaps even the same day, it would’ve still been frustrating and dumb, but it wouldn’t have created an international crisis — okay, that’s a bit of a hyperbole, but it’s the equivalent of such in the golf world. I mean, holy crap, this rules controversy had the ability to dominate conversation and coverage on Masters Monday!

Recently, someone on Twitter had a great analogy to a ongoing theme in our …ummm… current affairs. This doesn’t make complete sense without context, but the essence was that the house was on fire, the main character was running around with matches, and his lackeys were only concerned with whomever called the fire department. Basically, we don’t need to hang the TV vigilante nor the rules official who enforced it, but we should look at the actual rule, and most important, the fact that viewers are ALLOWED to call/text/email rules infractions a day later or whatever it may be. To my knowledge, the statue of limitations ends when the champion has been declared, so if the infraction happened Sunday and the viewer sent an email Monday, it wouldn’t have impacted the result.

Some Tour players and golf twitter have argued that there is no other major sport that allows fans to question the calls of officials. While I do understand the point they’re trying to make, it doesn’t completely hold water because the officials in those sports are supposed to officiate the rules of those leagues; whereas in golf, we’re supposed to hold ourselves accountable and officials aren’t watching our every move and play a bit of a different role. Again, I get the sentiment, but just pointing out the “other side.”

Missy Jones points out the USGA and R&A’s proposed rules changes for 2019 that would’ve spared Lexi.

When you need to estimate or measure a spot, point, line, area or distance under a Rule, your reasonable judgment will not be second-guessed based on later evidence (such as video review) if you did all that could reasonably be expected under the circumstances to estimate or measure accurately.

However, I would take it a step further and simply prohibit TV vigilantism altogether. Instead of demanding the identity of the TV viewer in Lexi’s case, etc., we should be appealing to golf’s governing bodies and perhaps even the individual Tours. On Monday players were obviously asked about Lexi’s unfortunate situation and it dominated a fair share of time in press conferences at Augusta National.

“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 debacle with Dustin Johnson at last year’s U.S. Open.  “There’s no other sport where people can call or e‑mail in or contact officials regarding an issue.  I mean, 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, you know, in this case, having a lot of effect on the outcome of a major.  It’s not just another tournament.”

Fowler, who usually toes the line, was very clear with his stance on the role of TV vigilantes:

“There’s no question (TV vigilantism) should be ended. I think you can talk to ‑‑ I don’t think you could find one player that would say otherwise. Now if there’s an official always monitoring any video or anyone on camera, that’s fine, and I have no problem with that, if that’s an official. You look at other sports, they go to someone in the video booth and there’s an official in there that can look over stuff, great. There shouldn’t be any outside contact, whether it’s e‑mail or phone calls whatsoever.”

Justin Thomas had a lot to say on the topic:

“It’s just so annoying to me that, first off, that can happen after the round has concluded. I mean, you look at the video, I think she said it, it did happen. Obviously it was completely unintentional. There was no advantage gained to it. It was, whatever, a foot‑putt and it was just because ‑‑ I know exactly what happened, because of the angle she went in, she marked it behind the ball where she was. But then when she picked it up to line it down, you just naturally kind of put it in a line. But because of that, she moved the ball.

“But the fact that somebody that has no relevance to the tournament, isn’t involved, a day later, can ‑‑ first off, I don’t know where this number or e‑mail is found. I really don’t. I think I’ve even Googled it before just because it’s bizarre to me that someone can do that, and it cost her a major championship. Yeah, I guess you could look at it both ways.

“When people say that she cheated is just ridiculous. She played better than everybody that week. She deserved to win and just because someone is sitting at home, gets behind a computer and decides to send an e‑mail to this mysterious e‑mail address and can change an outcome is bizarre to me.

“It would be the same exact thing as somebody who could just call the NBA and say this person travelled and all of a sudden ‑‑ it would be like, you know what, perfect example, I would call the ref in the National Championship game and say that last one was a pick play, Clemson, and Alabama won the National Championship. I’m happy, everyone else is mad and maybe that’s why they did it, I don’t know.

“It’s frustrating and it needs to go away and it needs to change. The biggest thing that I ‑‑ sorry, I’m kind of rambling here. But if you’re not a premiere player, you’re not on TV. I was joking last year, the DJ rule happened to me in Atlanta on Saturday. I had about a two‑footer, and it was downhill, I marked it, picked it up, Jordan [Spieth] putted. I went down and I got over it and then the ball moved. I mean, it moved, I mean, so small. But because I was on TV, because they showed it, that’s when they could go back and be like, yeah, well, you caused that to move. It’s the same thing. You know, just because, who knows, it could happen to someone but they don’t have video evidence to go back and prove it, then no one has a chance to call in.

“In an extremely long answer, that’s how I feel about it.”

Preach, dude. Never feel like you shouldn’t speak your mind or condense the answer! It matters!

Given the hypothetical that Thomas was watching a tournament and saw something happen and had access to the rules infraction hotline phone number and/or email address, he wouldn’t intervene.

“It’s not my position. It’s not ‑‑ the thing is, if a person committed a rules infraction, they should call it on themselves if they know they did it. Something like that, you’re not going to know they did it. They are not going to gain an advantage, then whatever. Whatever is going to ‑‑ the thing that I have always believed, I’ve always said, whatever is going to be is going to happen. I believe in karma. You know, someone is going to try to do something like that, try to cheat; then, whatever, that’s not my problem. But in terms of something like that to where it’s just very, very minimal and I see it on TV, it’s not my place.”

I hear that.

Thomas had more to say on the topic of intent, regarding a situation he faced in Atlanta during the Tour Championship last year when his ball moved after address but he had not caused the ball to move (similar to DJ situation at Oakmont).

“I did it in Atlanta last year. I argued for 30 minutes, I sat in there, and he just kept ‑‑ you know, to their defense, it was the rule. But the rule, the DJ rule was basically that ‑‑ I forget the exact wording. But just there was no defined line. It was like, if it’s windy enough or if it’s severe or enough. I’m like, look, we are playing on greens that are 13s. I’m on, I think it was a 3 1/2 percent grade and I’m downgrain. I’m like, ‘That’s pretty fast. That’s a very, very severe slope. I’m like, how is that not severe?’

He’s like, ‘Well, it’s not severe enough.’

I’m like, ‘Well, where is the line drawn?’

He’s like, ‘Well, there’s no line.’

I’m like, ‘Well, I’m not getting a penalty.’

I just kept saying it, because it just was irritating because for something, to get a penalty, to get stuff like that when it’s just no benefit to your score; when you’re not doing anything.

I mean, I understand there’s going to be times where ‑‑ trying to think of a freaky scenario, where you’re trying to take a practice swing and you hit a limb on accident. Yeah, you’re not trying to, but that’s a penalty and that’s completely different. But in terms of if you do something like that, that’s when I argued with him. And finally he was just like, ‘Look, I’m not going to give this to you.’ I had enough. He knew how I felt; I’ll put it that way.”

Jimmy Walker also believes in taking armchair officials out of the picture:

“I didn’t actually see what happened yesterday.  I kind of heard about it, sounded like it was a really, really bad raw deal.  But I don’t think people should be able to call in like that, especially with as many cameras that are going on and some players have so many more cameras on them, it’s just ‑‑ I think it’s unfair.

“There’s no other sport where anybody could call in and say, oh, that was a foul.  It just doesn’t happen.  I mean, I don’t know why we’re the exception, you get to do that.  Nobody gets to call in ins-and-outs in tennis.  It just doesn’t happen.  I think we need to change that.”

ESPN.com’s Bob Harig spoke with Brandt Snedeker:

“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.”

So, let’s not waste our time demanding for the LPGA to disclose the identity of the TV viewer — whom I hope feels really great about him/herself (though I’m sure the person has justified it in his/her mind. We shouldn’t beat up the LPGA rules official or the LPGA, per se. But it would likely be most productive to take your concerns up with the USGA and R&A, golf’s governing bodies. The proposed change in the rule that won’t take effect until 2019 seems like it would’ve absolved Lexi, but in my opinion and it sounds like PGA Tour pros are in unanimous agreement that TV vigilantism should be prohibited altogether.

In the spirit of the massive wave of activism sweeping throughout the U.S. in recent months in response to the political climate, it would seem like the most productive solution for golfers — and this includes the PGA Tour and LPGA players — would be to write letters/emails and/or make phone calls to the governing bodies.

However, I also don’t want the USGA and R&A to scapegoat me for encouraging people to flood their phone lines and inboxes, either. But as we’ve seen in our government, it’s a strategy that does work. I mean, I’ve written more letters and phone calls to lawmakers in recent months than ever before (and believe it or not, my school encouraged activism and civici engagement, so there were letters written throughout grades 5-12).

I know golf isn’t the same thing or nearly as important as healthcare, but the analogy I’m making has merits, and on the USGA’s website, it states the organization’s mission is to “promote and conserve the true spirit of the game of golf as embodied in its ancient and honorable traditions. It acts in the best interests of the game for the continued enjoyment of those who love and play it.”

Wait, no mention of GROWING THE GAME?!?! Kidding. OK, well, given their mission statement, I would say it’s completely reasonable to write to the USGA and the R&A. It could be described as a golfer’s “civic” duty.

Let me emphasize that I’m not asking and/or urging people in the slightest to write hate mail or troll them. I guess this is me covering my butt, too, but really, I’m not trying to attack either organization in the least. I’m just saying for the golfers and fans who think this is a concern great enough to them to warrant change and quicker than perhaps usual, this might be a constructive solution. I’m sure the USGA and R&A would also agree that they welcome and encourage feedback.