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Lexi Thompson lost an LPGA major after a TV viewer’s email prompted a four-stroke penalty

Lexi Thompson reacts after her loss in a playoff to So Yeon Rryu in the ANA Inspiration golf tournament. (Gary A. Vasquez/USA Today)

Tiger Woods knows all too well how this feels. Dustin Johnson can identify. An eagle-eyed TV viewer, watching the LPGA’s first major of the year, spotted day-old rules infractions that left Lexi Thompson in tears and, unlike with Woods, it cost her the lead and the second major title of her career.

The viewer emailed the LPGA to say that Thompson had slightly misplaced a marked ball on the 17th hole Saturday. Officials reviewed the day’s play and, with Thompson leading by two strokes after 54 holes, they informed her on the 12th hole Sunday that she was being penalized four strokes.

“Is this a joke? Oh, my God,” she told an official through tears. “Four-stroke penalty, that’s just ridiculous.”

Woods, who was paying attention, tweeted encouragement to Thompson on Sunday evening. “Viewers at home should not be officials wearing stripes. Let’s go, @Lexi, win this thing anyway.”

Thompson recovered well enough to force a playoff with South Korea’s So Yeon Ryu, but the disappointment at how she failed to win her second major was evident. The LPGA explained in a statement:

“On Sunday afternoon, the LPGA received an email from a television viewer, saying that Lexi Thompson did not properly replace her ball before putting out on the 17th hole during Saturday’s third round of the ANA Inspiration. The claim was quickly investigated by LPGA Rules officials.

“After a full review, it was determined that Thompson breached Rule 20-7c (Playing From Wrong Place), and received a two-stroke penalty under Rule 16-1b. She incurred an additional two-stroke penalty under Rule 6-6d for returning an incorrect scorecard in round three. She was immediately notified of the breach by LPGA Rules Committee in between holes 12 and 13 of the final round.”

Woods was nearly disqualified from the 2013 Masters when a former PGA rules official called tournament officials to say that Woods had taken an improper drop on the 15th hole of the second round, embarrassing but accurate in a sport in which TV viewers have a clear close-up views that are not available to golfers. All it takes is an email or a phone call. In the case of the Masters, the former official knew just how to address the situation and triggered an in-depth investigation involving the tournament’s four-time champion.

For Johnson and for Anna Nordqvist, confusion resulted from rule reviews that required frame-by-frame video review and created tournament tumult.

Johnson won last year’s U.S. Open despite the drama that ensued when U.S. Golf Association officials debated whether to penalize him a stroke because his ball had possibly moved ever so slightly on the putting green at the fifth hole. Johnson had called over an official and told him that the ball had not moved, tapped in and played on. Officials decided to review video and informed Johnson of the possible penalty seven holes later, a decision the USGA later said it regretted. That was after Woods, Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy and others tweeted their objections. In December, the USGA and The R&A announced a rule change that eliminates the penalty when a ball is accidentally moved on the putting green.

In the 2016 U.S. Women’s Open, Nordqvist was assessed a penalty after officials reviewed high-def video from the telecast and determined she had grounded her club in a fairway bunker. Nordqvist did not learn of the penalty until a hole later, and lost the tournament in a playoff.

Thompson, like Woods, claimed her mistake was unintentional in a sport in which sportsmanship and self-policing are important.

“First off I do want to say what I had done was 100% not intentional at all I didn’t realize I had done that. I want to say thank you to all the sponsors, volunteers and Mission Hills for making this week possible at the @anainspiration ! Also to the fans out there, words can’t describe what you being there for me, meant to me. You helped me push thru those last holes so thank you for always believing in me,” she wrote late Sunday on Instagram. “A big thanks to my caddie as well for always staying positive and being there for me when it got tough. I played some great golf so definitely a lot of positives to take from the week. Time for a very needed 3 weeks off now. Thank you everybody.”

Woods, whose infraction also was not caught by his caddie, playing partners, officials, volunteers or spectators on the course, skirted the dire circumstances that dearly cost Thompson. Thanks to a rule change in 2012, he was not disqualified for signing what was an incorrect scorecard because of the mistake. Doing so cost Thompson two of the four strokes in her penalty.

“At hole #15, I took a drop that I thought was correct and in accordance with the rules,” Woods explained on Twitter at the time. “I was unaware at that time I had violated any rules. I didn’t know I had taken an incorrect drop before signing my scorecard. Subsequently, I met with the Masters Committee Saturday morning … and was advised they had reviewed the incident before the completion of my round. Their initial determination … was that there was no violation, but they had additional concerns based on my post-round interview. After discussing the situation … with them this morning, I was assessed a two-shot penalty. I understand and accept the penalty and respect the Committees’ decision.”

Instead of a 1-under-par 71, Woods was given a 73 and, although he was only four strokes back of the lead on the final day, he finished in a tie for fourth place.

With the Masters beginning Thursday, there is still no real clarity on how much chaos a viewer can inject into a tournament with a simple email or call, if for no other reason than that it subjects the best golfers and leaders to more intense scrutiny because they simply are always on TV.

“It’ll only be certain guys who are on camera,” Rickie Fowler told the Golf Channel’s Jason Sobel, who wrote that viewer call-ins are a “necessary evil” in 2013. “Certain guys are going to be under 24-hour surveillance, while other guys are going to be out there and no one ever sees what’s going on.”

Maybe put a replay official at each hole and, if he or she doesn’t spot an infraction, let’s all move along rather than taking submissions from random, unidentified viewers.

“If you’re watching a football match — or a soccer match, whatever you want to call it — there’s only one match and there are cameras showing it,” Sergio Garcia told Sobel. “Here, you can’t show everyone. Someone can do something that would not be on camera and nothing happens. Then someone else, because he’s on TV, people will see it and call it in.”