Snapping Golf ClubsOn Sunday 2 April 2017, Lexi Thompson was given a four-stroke penalty while leading the LPGA’s first Major of the year and was subsequently defeated in a play-off to Ryu So-yeon, following the actions of a vigilant television viewer.  This was not a mistake nor the result of a new or innovative fan engagement exercise; this was the correct application of the current version of the R&A and USPGA’s Rules of Golf and Equipment by the LPGA .

For those who are not familiar with the finer details of golf’s (sometimes obscure) Rules, Lexi Thompson was found to have breached Rule 16.1(b) and thus incurred a 2 point penalty under Rule 20.7(c) and a further 2 point penalty under Rule 6.6(d), the relevant provisions of which provide as follows:

Rule 6.6(d)

Wrong Score for Hole

The competitor is responsible for the correctness of the score recorded for each hole on his score card. If he returns a score for any hole lower than actually taken, he is disqualified… 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….

Rule 16.1(b)

Lifting and Cleaning Ball

A ball on the putting green may be lifted and, if desired, cleaned. The position of the ball must be marked before it is lifted and the ball must be replaced (see Rule 20-1). When another ball is in motion, a ball that might influence the movement of the ball in motion must not be lifted

Rule 20.7(c)

Stroke Play

If a competitor makes a stroke from a wrong place, he incurs a penalty of two strokes under the applicable Rule….

So far, so simple. Any number of sports have strict rules about where you can or cannot strike the match ball from.

However, the real controversy surrounding the Lexi Thompson decision was not that the Rules were enforced. The real controversy lies in the fact that: (i) the Rule breach took place during an earlier round, on Saturday 1 April 2017, but was not notified to Thompson nor any sanction issued until Thompson was moving between the 12th and 13th green on Sunday 2 April 2017, (ii) neither Thompson’s playing partner nor the on-site referee spotted the Rule breach, (iii) the Rules were enforced as a result of a television viewer (watching the coverage of the Major on demand a day later) emailing the LPGA’s fan site, and (iv) the television viewer’s intervention led to a change in the outcome of a live sporting event. The LPGA in a statement said:

“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.”

There is no Rule that specifically states that a television viewer may call the LPGA (or the PGA for that matter) and that the relevant regulatory body must then investigate the alleged Rule breach. However, golf’s regulators have consistently taken the approach that all potential Rule breaches must be investigated irrespective of when the breach took place and when (or how) that breach is notified to them provided that the tournament is still on-going.  By way of example, on 2 April 2017, LPGA Rules Official Sue Witters, who conveyed the breach and 4 stroke penalty to Thompson, stated:

“What’s my choice?… A violation in the rules and then it would be the opposite story: Oh, they knew, why didn’t they do anything about it…. I can’t go to bed tonight knowing that I let a rule slide. You know, it’s a hard thing to do, and it made me sick to be honest with you.”

The precedent to the dogged pursuit of after-the-event Rule breaches is thought to emanate from the 1987 Andy Warhol Open. During the event, Craig Stradler, finding that his ball had landed under a tree, laid a towel down for his knees as he “… didn’t want to finish the ground looking like a gardener”. The next day, a television viewer called officials to state that Stradler should be docked two points for “building a stance”.  Stradler lost those two points and was then promptly retrospectively disqualified for submitting an incorrect scorecard during that round.

Following a number of incidents in which high profile golfers (including Padraig Harrington) were disqualified as a result of television viewer actions, Rule 6.6(d) was amended to include the exception set out above such that submitting an incorrect score card (in circumstances where a player did not know the score was incorrect) would no longer lead to disqualification but only a points dock.

However, in this author’s opinion Tiger Woods got it absolutely right when he Tweeted:

“Viewers at home should not be officials wearing stripes. Let’s go @Lexi, win this thing anyway.”

That there is no time limit on when a breach can be notified and investigated nor any requirement as to who is permitted to  notify the relevant regulator leads to uncertainty for the players, event organisers and broadcasters. That alone should be reason enough to revise the Rules.

However, the fundamental issue at play here is that golf is a self regulating sport.  It relies on the underlying belief that golfers and their playing partners (together with referees at bigger events) will enforce and uphold both the letter and the spirit of the Rules.  Accordingly, at Majors, the officials should have the final say on any Rule breaches on the field of play and, in this author’s opinion, once a round is finished, no official, regulator or other person should be able to instigate the investigation of Rule breaches nor retrospectively issue sanctions that affect the outcome of a later round or the tournament. To allow otherwise: (i) undermines the official’s authority and the sport’s ability to regulate itself, (ii) leaves professional golfers and the game of professional golf answerable to the armchair referee (who may not have watched coverage of all players equally), and (iii) risks creating an unfair outcome and attracting criticism of the game. In a sport in which prize money runs into the millions and enjoys enviable television coverage, it would seem sensible to: (i) pay an official (or officials) to carefully watch the television feed of all players while the rounds are on-going, (ii) require that all Rule breaches must be notified (and sanctions issued) to players prior to the commencement of the next round, and (iii) regulate that only players and tournament officials may notify the referee of suspected Rule breaches.

To put the current situation into perspective, the power of golf’s armchair referee is the equivalent of: (i) a football fan Tweeting during half time of a 1-1 game that he/she suspects that one of Team B’s players fouled one of Team A’s players in Team B’s box during the first half, (ii) the referee, on viewing the footage, agreeing that a penalty should have been awarded to Team A, and (iii) that referee subsequently deducting one goal from Team B at some point during the second half thus changing the result from a 1-1 draw to a 1-0 victory for Team A.  It’s a situation that would simply not be accepted (although think of the entertaining press conferences…).  If golf wants to maintain the ability to issue retrospective penalties then, in this author’s opinion, those penalties should be restricted to financial sanctions or points deductions from future tournaments.

Having said that, you would have heard very little (if any) protest from this author if Craig Joubert’s decision to award Australia a late penalty during the 2015 Rugby World Cup (and the points they scored) had been retrospectively annulled… Stuck in the past/holding a grudge? Never.