Another major rules debate reminds us how golf isn't fair
AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) Lexi Thompson might be more famous for the way she lost than if she had won.
So shocking was the final hour of the LPGA Tour's first major, when Thompson was given a four-shot penalty for a day-old placement error, that it remained a popular topic over the first two days of the Masters.
Phil Mickelson commented that a number of PGA Tour players are ''loose'' with the way they mark their golf balls on the green. Jack Nicklaus offered a suggestion that penalties shouldn't be assessed after a round is completed.
''Once the round is over, and the scorecard is signed, the day is over,'' Nicklaus said Tuesday. ''That's my opinion.''
The conversation of rules just won't go away.
Perhaps it was only fitting that opinions were swirling among the trees at Augusta National.
It was not far from the live oak outside the clubhouse where one of the harshest penalties in major championship history was handed down. Roberto De Vincenzo finished 72 holes in a tie with Bob Goalby at the 1968 Masters. De Vicenzo signed his scorecard without realizing that Tommy Aaron had put down a 4 instead of a 3 for the Argentine on the 17th hole.
Because the card was signed, the score stood. De Vicenzo had to accept the higher score and finished one shot behind.
''What a stupid I am,'' he famously said that day.
That word tends to apply to golf in moments like Thompson experienced Sunday in California at the ANA Inspiration.
Thompson missed a putt on the 17th hole on Saturday and went to rap it in from a foot when she stopped, marked her ball from the side and quickly replaced it in a slightly different spot. From a television replay, it was clear she didn't place the ball where it was originally marked.
Trouble is, the LPGA was not notified until the next day by a television viewer who emailed the tour. By the time officials reviewed the incident and decided on the penalty, Thompson was on her way to the 13th tee in the final round with a three-shot lead.
She was docked two shots for the violation. Those are the rules.
She was docked two additional shots because she signed her card for a 67, and with two-shot penalty, it should have been a 69. Signing for the wrong score now carries a two-shot penalty, so then it became a 71. Those, too, are the rules.
Just like that, Thompson went from three shots ahead to one shot behind. She managed to get into a playoff, where So Yeon Ryu won with a birdie.
The question regarding Thompson should not be whether she should have been penalized four shots. Harsh as it was, the LPGA Tour had no choice but to follow the rules, and none of this would have happened had Thompson replaced her ball the way she should have.
And the question should not be whether TV viewers have a right to point out the infractions they may (or may not) see.
In other sports, the officials are the only ones even allowed to call a penalty. Golf is played over such a large arena - sometimes on multiple courses - that it relies on information or evidence from multiple sources, including players, caddies, television viewers and fans. Once golf officials have the evidence, they have no choice but to act.
The question is about the importance of a scorecard, and a statute of limitations.
Thomas Pagel, the senior director of rules for the USGA, described the scorecard in stroke play as ''the one guarantee that this is your final score,'' which is why a playing partner keeps the score of another player.
It could have been worse. Until a year ago, signing an incorrect card meant disqualification. Imagine the LPGA official walking up to Thompson and offering her a ride back to the clubhouse because she was out of the tournament.
The broader question is timing.
If the LPGA had not discovered that Thompson violated a rule until Monday, the tournament would have been closed and no penalty assessed. Because the tour was notified with six holes to play, Thompson was penalized for something that happened nearly 24 hours earlier.
Why not, as Nicklaus suggested, closing the books after each round instead of waiting for the tournament to be over?
''The challenge there is you're not handing out a trophy or money after each round,'' Pagel said. ''What you've done is put the committee in a position where it becomes known after the fact and you can't act. You could have a player who breached a rule, didn't include it on the scorecard and there's no penalty. And the day before, another player breached the same rule and had it included on the scorecard. How is that fair?''
That might be a lesson that existed long before television or the rules of golf could be printed on a single sheet of paper.
Golf isn't fair.