To be clear, Lexi Thompson was a loser Monday and going forward, when she should have been nothing short of a clear winner, trophy and check in hand, smiles all around. The who-what-where-how of all this: Thompson marked her ball on the 17th green during the third round of the ANA Inspiration, placed it down in a slightly different spot — and by “slightly,” we mean “barely perceptible to the point in which it couldn’t possibly make a difference to the competition” — putted out and went about her round, her day, her life.
Subsequently — and by “subsequently,” we don’t mean Saturday after her round, or Saturday evening, or Sunday morning before she ate breakfast, or Sunday afternoon before she teed off, but between the 12th and 13th holes of the final round — she was informed she had been penalized.
Imagine the satisfaction for officials, for the keepers of the game: We’ll take two shots for the misplaced ball, thank you. And while we’re at it, we’ll take two more because you signed an incorrect scorecard that you had no idea was incorrect. We’ll force you to grind just to push the LPGA’s first major championship of the season into a playoff. And when you lose that, we’ll console ourselves by — by what, exactly? Convincing ourselves that, in enforcing the legalese of rules 20-7c, 16-1b and 6-6d, we’ve defended the honor of golf?
Please. No sport is as self-important as golf. None treats its rule book like so much scripture. And yet, none allows everyman to play Judge Judy.
The only reason Thompson sits here as a one-time major winner, rather than twice a champion, is because a television viewer noticed what the sport of golf labels a sin but the general public would take as something short of an honest mistake. Does the person who emailed the LPGA wake up satisfied that his or her version of community policing has nabbed another thug?
As golf enters the greater public consciousness for the first time all year — it’s Masters week, after all — the streets are safe, and thank God. Breathe easy. Lexi has been caught. Justice has been served. Turn your attention back to fulfilling your monthly obligation at the grill, or to figuring out the flights for the upcoming member-guest.
What are we doing here?
In what other sport do people get to watch from the comfort of their homes, with the advantage of HD television and self-controlled frame-by-frame replay, and get to participate in the adjudication of the action? The answer is no other sports. Zero. What happened to Thompson — or, for that matter, to Tiger Woods at the 2013 Masters, or Dustin Johnson at the 2016 U.S. Open, or a host of other players over the past decade — amounts to the NFL starting to crowdsource replay reviews.
Did Dez Bryant make that catch in Green Bay? Why, we’re not sure. Let’s ask you guys at home! Yes, that’s right. You! What do you think? Retweet for catch. Fave for incompletion.
That sounds ridiculous, because it is ridiculous. But golf has put itself in this position by willfully and gleefully developing a small cadre of rules sticklers. There is, among serious golfers, a perverse pride in knowing the rules not by broad brush, but with the precision of a copyright attorney.
Let’s also keep in mind who these de facto officials penalize: the players who are on television. What are the odds that a competitor on the LPGA or PGA tours, with a tee time well out of the television spotlight, accidentally placed his or her ball in a slightly incorrect spot this past weekend and no one noticed? Pretty darn good. Amazing that the earth continues to spin on its axis.
So the first simple solution is to eliminate the on-your-couch factor. Golf’s participation numbers are down anyway. What’s to be lost by eliminating the few whack jobs who sit at home and gain enjoyment by playing mall cop?
Rather, just as the NFL has replay officials on-site and the NHL and MLB have replay officials in centralized offices, golf needs to simply establish replay officials for each event. This would inconvenience exactly no one and would eliminate the unfairly empowered masses from cackling at the penalties they inflict, anonymously, from hundreds of miles away.
Furthermore, contain any assessments of potential rules violations to that day, at the very least. Better yet, put a time limit on when a player’s round can be evaluated. What’s wrong with saying that no issue can be broached more than an hour after the player is done? If something’s missed over the course of the round and still hasn’t been brought up an hour later, there’s a good chance it didn’t matter in the least anyway. The idea that Thompson could be penalized two-thirds of the way through her subsequent round is akin to the Packers committing a holding penalty against the Bears and being assessed a 15-yard penalty in the third quarter of their next game against the Vikings. I mean, come on.
That all this comes just months after the U.S. Golf Association and the R & A, the two rules developers on opposite sides of the Atlantic, announced with much self-congratulations a simplification of their rules, eliminating an (inexplicable) penalty on a player when a ball accidentally moved on a putting surface once it was marked (as if a player was responsible for gusts of wind anyway). That was what amounts to progress. This shows plenty of stupidity remains.
Part of golf’s code, the reason its protectors view it as morally superior to other sports, is the honor it teaches in self-policing. Long before any of these players performed on television, they were entrusted with counting their strokes honestly, with not moving their ball when no one was looking, with governing themselves in all sorts of competition, be it against the course or an opponent. It is supposed to teach honor and integrity.
But where is the honor, then, in not listening to a Lexi Thompson, who says she had no intention of gaining any sort of advantage — and, in fact, gained no such advantage — when she returned her ball to a slightly different spot? Why not believe her? Who, in the field at the ANA Inspiration or at the Masters to come, believes justice has been served?
Instead, we have golf headed into its biggest week of the year, prime for ridicule from casual observers who see it as elitist and inaccessible. And for those who know the sport inside and out, we see a would-be champion instead in tears, because the sport values the observations of a couch jockey more than those who play it at the highest level.
For more by Barry Svrluga, visit washingtonpost.com/svrluga.