Masters Week & The Lexi Thompson Ruling

Masters week is special.  Not only does it begin the “major” season on the PGA Tour, but to many golfers living in the northern climes, it signals the beginning of spring and time to dust off the clubs for another season.  No doubt, most of us will be watching this week as Jordan, Dustin, Rory & Jason chase the green jacket, and for sure there will be much conversation about Tiger and his future (if any) in major championship golf.  We will again marvel at the manicured splendor of The Augusta National and at least for a weekend set aside our personal challenges, political differences and world problems to celebrate the great game of golf and our enthusiasm for same.

That being said, there has been much attention the past couple days to the unfortunate events at the ANA Inspiration Tournament involving Lexi Thompson.  By now most of you know that she was cruising toward victory Sunday, when at the 12th green, with what was presumably a 2 shot lead she was penalized 4 shots for not properly remarking her ball (2 shots) and signing an incorrect scorecard (2 shots) on Saturday, during the 3rd round!  Instantly, she was 2 shots behind and summoned incredible poise and courage to birdie 3 of the last 6 holes to tie for first at the end of regulation.  All this occurred courtesy of an armchair rules official who emailed his observation a day later.  Despite losing the playoff, Thompson gave us all a lesson in good sportsmanship despite her obvious and understandable emotion, not only by coming back but also in her conduct during post tournament interviews and by sticking around to sign autographs.

Viewing the tape, there is little doubt that Thompson did not replace her ball exactly where it was marked.  From my perspective, there are several issues in this case:

  1. A ruling made a day later is disruptive and inappropriate.  Rulings should be made in the group, on the spot and when there’s a question (which there wasn’t) two balls can be played.  No more armchair rules officials.
  2. When a card is signed and posted that should be final.  Do they replay football games or change the score because of a bad call or change the result?
  3. If all ball re-markings were scrutinized to this level (slow motion, high definition replay), how many balls would be remarked exactly where they were marked?  It would seem to me that the words “as near as possible” should be considered to be added.  As the book title says “Golf is not a game of perfect”.

As the game of golf struggles to reverse its declining participation and increasing course closures, this incident is another major example of why people either leave the game or don’t start playing. Golf needs to avoid these incidents.  Last year it was Dustin Johnson at the US Open and Suzanne Petterson in the US Women’s Open.  In previous major championships there was Dustin Johnson in the PGA at Whistling Straits, Tiger Woods’ drop on #15 at the Masters and Arnold Palmer’s plugged ball at the 1958 Masters, just to name a few.  The activities competing with golf for participation don’t obstruct their own progress.

Sadly, many already forgotten that So Yeon Ryu won the event, but this unfortunate incident will likely hang over another of golf’s showcase events this week at The Masters, which is not without its own history of rules controversies.  That’s a shame!

As the USGA and R & A review, consider and contemplate an overhaul of the Rules of Golf, the impact on the health of the game is primary.

  • Do foolish rules discourage participation?
  • Would eliminating some of those rules compromise the integrity of the challenge of golf?
  • Will simplifying the rules make golf a better, healthier game?

The USGA and R & A have taken a great step by proposing to simplify the rules and eliminating about a third of them.  During this process, I believe it is incumbent upon both organizations, who serve the game so well to make sure they stay out of their own way by balancing tradition and progress to make golf a better game that can and will be enjoyed by more and more people.  For sure, they won’t get it perfect, but these are considerations that need attention.  In a world where time is so precious, where else can one spend quality time with family and friends, get some exercise and compete at the same time?  There aren’t many options.  Let’s give more people more reasons to play golf.

Mr. Palmer would be proud of Lexi Thompson and of any effort to grow the game and expand it to the masses.