Another déjà vu Rules experience. Following a communication from a TV viewer, the Rules officials at the LPGA ANA Inspiration at Mission Hills, had little option other than to apply penalties under Rule 20-7c and Rule 6-6d to the clear breach by the tournament leader, Lexi Thompson. I appreciate that many of my readers will not agree with this opening statement, so I am going to expand on it. If you are not already familiar with the detail of this latest Rules incident to blight a major golf tournament, I recommend that you click on this link to view what happened and then read the official statement from the LPGA.
LPGA Statement Regarding Lexi Thompson Penalty
On Sunday afternoon, the LPGA received an email from a television viewer, saying that Lexi Thompson did not properly replace her ball prior to 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.
This addresses the confusion that some golfers have, as to why Lexi’s penalty was four strokes and not two. Here is the wording of the Exception to Rule 6-6d;
Exception: If a competitor returns a score for any hole lower than actually taken due to failure to include one or more penalty strokes that, before returning his score card, he did not know he had incurred, he is not disqualified. In such circumstances, the competitor incurs the penalty prescribed by the applicable Rule and an additional penalty of two strokes for each hole at which the competitor has committed a breach of Rule 6-6d. This Exception does not apply when the applicable penalty is disqualification from the competition.
Note that if the same Rules infraction had occurred prior to 1st January 2016, when this exception was introduced, Lexi would have been disqualified and would not have collected her second place prize money of $250,591.00.
I have a number of points to make regarding this incident and for ease I am going to do so in a bullet point format.
• As Lee Westwood tweeted, “You know all this rules confusion could have been averted if Lexi just mastered the art of marking and replacing the ball in the same spot.”
• There is no question that the ball was not replaced at the spot from which it was lifted, as required by Rule 20-3a. Lexi was given the opportunity to view the incident on video after her round and admitted that she had unintentionally breached this Rule.
• All professional golfers know that the ball has to be replaced accurately, or a penalty is incurred. For example, they know that if they lift their ball that has come to rest in a dent in the putting surface, such as an aeration hole, they must replace the ball in that dent (unless there is a Local Rule that offers relief). If some latitude was introduced to this Rule, e.g. replace within 1cm (4/10ths inch), it would unnecessarily complicate the Rule and would not stop witnesses from claiming that a player had placed just outside this prescribed limit. For this reason there is no latitude built into the Rule.
• Lexi says that she was not aware that she had replaced her ball at a different spot and no-one seems to be disputing this. But from a Rules perspective the video evidence is uncertain. She appears to be about to make the short, two-foot putt when she sees something; unusually she then marks the ball to the side; lifts the ball and does not clean it; then twists it, without apparently lining up any of the markings to the hole, as she places it in front of her ball-marker. How is an official meant to accurately determine whether this was an unconscious mistake not deserving of a penalty, or a deliberate act of cheating that certainly does?
• If the officials notify a player of a penalty incurred as soon as they have made their ruling and it occurs during a round they are criticised, but if they wait until the end of the round before passing on the bad news they are also criticised! There is no easy answer as to when the player and the other competitors should be notified.
• Rules officials do not solicit calls or emails from third-parties, but once they are aware of a suspected breach, they have a duty to the other competitors to follow-up and enforce the Rules. This equally applies to Club and Society competitions. If a Committee turns a blind eye to any reported breach, even if it has no apparent effect on the player’s score, they will find that the next time any Rules incident occurs the player involved will demand the same preferential treatment, because a precedent has been set.
• Most of the criticism surrounding this incident has been directed towards the person who emailed the LPGA to make them aware of the breach. However, there is another side to this. If the email had not been received during the competition it is probable that Lexi would have won the tournament. Supposing that subsequently someone put the video on-line, highlighting her incorrect replacement and speculating that it had been done purposely. At best this would have put an asterisk (*) against her name as winner and it is very possible that the ‘evidence’ could then have gone viral, bringing it to the attention of a much wider and less forgiving audience. If you don’t believe that this can happen try Googling, “Montgomerie replaced ball in wrong spot” (2005), or “Mark O’Meara admits to misplacing” (1997). These incidents are still being remembered in a negative manner against the players involved, over a decade later.
• Golf’s reputation is admirably different from almost every other sport, largely due to the integrity of players at all levels, who almost universally abide by a unified set of evolving Rules that are strictly applied, without favour.
• Finally, the proposed Rules changes for 2019 have this ‘reasonable judgment’ clause that might have absolved Lexi had it been in place today; “So long as you do all that can be reasonably expected of you under the circumstances to make an accurate estimation or measurement, your reasonable judgment will be accepted even if later shown to be wrong by other information (such as video technology).”
There is no doubt in my mind that Lexi Thompson has come out of this situation as a stronger athlete with a larger fan base. She handled an extraordinarily emotional situation with amazing dignity and class, even staying on after she knew that the incident had lost her the tournament win, to sign autographs and have pictures taken with her fans. I am pleased to leave the last word to her, copied from her official Instagram account;
“Well it was an emotional day here for me, 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. A big thanks to my caddy 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 ❤”
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