Jeff Shain

Put statute of limitations on golf’s armchair rules officials

Lexi Thompson composes herself on 18th green during the final round of the ANA Inspiration in Rancho Mirage, Calif. Midway through the round, Thompson had been assessed a four-stroke penalty for a rules violation one day earlier.
Lexi Thompson composes herself on 18th green during the final round of the ANA Inspiration in Rancho Mirage, Calif. Midway through the round, Thompson had been assessed a four-stroke penalty for a rules violation one day earlier. AP

There’s still five months for folks to offer feedback to golf’s rulemaking bodies regarding the massive rules upgrade that’s planned for 2019. While the dismay is fresh, though, here’s one that needs to find its way into the book.

Once the next day’s first shot is struck, a round gets locked in. No going back.

Now that may not directly relate to any of the 33 major changes under review. Or it might, considering there’s one that embraces “reasonable intent” over video review.

But if one armchair rules arbiter can thoroughly disrupt a major championship with a single email 18 hours after the fact, maybe a flood of emails can get the U.S. Golf Association and The R&A to at least look at the proposal.

This much is indisputable: Lexi Thompson took four fewer actual strokes than anyone else at the LPGA’s first major, the ANA Inspiration.

Four. Sunday’s final holes at Mission Hills should have been a victory lap.

Instead, that four-shot margin was absorbed by a double penalty incurred for sloppiness in replacing her ball after marking it on the 17th green – one day earlier.

“It’s one of those unfortunate things about professional golf and live television,” LPGA rules official Dan Maselli said during the Golf Channel broadcast. “People do see things and I wish they would speak up more quickly.”

This wasn’t live television, though. Someone had to have been watching either something they taped from the previous evening, or Golf Channel highlights.

About to clean up a 2-foot par save, Thompson hesitated and marked her ball to realign her visual aid. In her haste, though, she set her ball back down perhaps a half-inch from its original spot before brushing it in.

Her playing partner didn’t notice. Nor did anyone on the Golf Channel crew, or fans following Thompson’s round. In fact, no one thought anything was amiss for the remainder of Saturday and into Sunday morning.

It wasn’t until mid-afternoon Sunday that some gumshoe sent an email to the LPGA suggesting they might want to take a look at a replay. At the time, Thompson already had been on the course nearly two hours, about seven holes into her final round.

It took another hour for officials to find the replay, zoom in and see the positional change. Then they had to head out to the course and tell everyone. They met Thompson as she was coming off the 12th green.

Two penalties. Two strokes for failing to replace her ball properly. Two more for signing an incorrect Saturday scorecard.

Without hitting a shot, Thompson had gone from two strokes clear of her nearest pursuer to two behind Inbee Park and Suzann Pettersen. She hit at least her next two shots through tears.

The fact Thompson forced a playoff with three birdies in her final six holes deserves some sort of special achievement award. Alas, So Yeon Ryu’s birdie on the first extra hole won it.

Even so, Ryu acknowleged to Golf Channel the victory “doesn’t feel right.”

“I cannot believe the situation,” she said. “Lexi played really, really well. We didn’t expect what happened to Lexi. ... I thought I was well behind.”

For those keeping score, that’s three major championships in the past nine months that have finished under a rules cloud.

Dustin Johnson won last year’s U.S. Open despite being informed midway through his Sunday round that he might have been at fault for a ball that moved on Oakmont’s fifth green. His four-shot win indeed was reduced to three.

Brittany Lang won the U.S. Women’s Open in part because replay showed Anna Nordqvist’s 5-iron brushed a little bunker sand during their three-hole playoff. And now this – a delayed flag if there ever was one.

The issue here isn’t the first penalty. Thompson indeed missed her mark, though it took zoom technology to reveal it. Nor was it with LPGA officials, who properly applied the rules as they now stand. But there has to be a statute of limitations, one that doesn’t throw a Sunday into turmoil.

“Maybe those viewers who email or call in should do that right away,” Golf Channel analyst Judy Rankin said as the penalty was revealed. “Maybe they shouldn’t do it all these hours and a day later. I’m not saying that it is necessarily wrong, but once the day is complete...

“If you’ve got it taped and you are watching it on Saturday and it happened on Thursday, please don’t (call).”

The good news is had this been two years ago, Thompson would have been disqualified for the incorrect scorecard. Try telling someone that 12 holes into the next round.

Then again, Thompson might have been exonerated if this was already 2019. Under one of the proposed changes, a player’s “reasonable judgement will be accepted” even if later shown to be wrong.

“The player gets no penalty for any small inaccuracies, irrespective of any advantage gained,” says the fine print.

Such as a half-inch on a 2-foot putt that tour pros make 98 percent of the time?

Bad timing, Lexi. Truly, truly sorry.

Jeff Shain: 843-706-8123, @jeffshain