Maybe the adage “there’s no such thing as bad publicity” is true after all. The LPGA hasn’t gotten this much coverage in, well, ever.
ESPN was all over the Lexi Thompson rules story on the same day as the NCAA men’s basketball final, while Mike Golic and Mike Greenberg spent inordinate minutes of their “Mike & Mike” program discussing the Rules of Golf.
The consensus of all in the media seems to mirror the opinions of most fans. It’s outrageous for someone sitting at home with a TV and a phone to dictate the outcome of a sporting event.
Social media sites continued the trend with every blown call from the North Carolina-Gonzaga game (and there were plenty) being tweeted with lines such as, “Hey, golf, where can I call to report this violation?
There is, however, a precedent on the LPGA for Sunday’s ruling at the ANA Inspiration that potentially cost Thompson her second major championship title.
It occurred in April 2015 at the Canadian Pacific Women’s Open. During the second round of that event, Chella Choi lipped out a 12-footer for birdie, leaving herself about an 18-inch tap-in for par, a similar distance to the putt Thompson had on Saturday of the ANA Inspiration. Like Thompson, Choi marked the ball and lifted it no more than a foot off the ground to check for debris. Like Thompson, Choi put the ball back down in a bad spot, no more than an inch from its original location. And, just as happened in the desert, the infraction was called in to tournament officials by a viewer watching at home.
Choi, convinced she hadn’t done anything wrong, refused the two-shot penalty and withdrew from the tournament, a withdrawal that changed the cut line from 2-under par to 1 under and allowed 18 additional players into the weekend.
On Sunday in Rancho Mirage, Calif., when LPGA officials addressed the media about Thompson’s penalty, Heather Daly-Donofrio, the chief communications and tour operations officer, said, “This is the last thing that the rules team wants to do. But their job is to enforce the rules of the game, regardless of who the player is and what the situation is and what the championship is. And it’s not always well received when the rules officials do their jobs.”
Daly-Donofrio was not thinking about the Choi ruling when she made those remarks (she had forgotten about it until I reminded her of it on Tuesday afternoon). But as she said last Sunday, “I hire my team to enforce the rules of the game, and none of us are happy about the outcome.”
Even LPGA Commissioner Mike Whan chimed in. He went on PGA Tour Radio on Tuesday morning and said, “I don’t think I’m different than a lot of our fans. I’ve gone through my own stages of frustration and anxiety. It’s frustrating; it’s embarrassing; it’s one of those situations where the penalty doesn’t match the crime. You can beat your head against the wall, but for 67 years the LPGA has followed the Rules of Golf as written, and we still do so today.”
Any criticism of the LPGA or the rules officials on site in California is grossly misplaced. The tour followed the rules as written and followed the precedent of the rule-making bodies – the USGA and R&A, as well as the PGA Tour – by allowing information to come from all sources, including, potentially, trolls living in their mom’s basements.
“I think it’s a fair criticism and critique on whether or not someone (at home watching on television) can point something out and whether we should review it a day later,” Whan said. “That’s not an LPGA thing. That’s an every-major-tour thing.
“I understand the feedback on the call-ins and the videos,” Whan continued. “And I’m not sure that I’m on a different side (of the fans) on that. But I’m smart enough to realize that when it comes to the Rules of Golf, I need to surround myself with smart people and listen to all the pros and cons.
“There’s a reason that we’ve been following this tactic for as long as we have, along with all other tours. To make a change requires us to look at all the pros and cons. We’re going to do that. But we’re not going to rush in and do it draped in the anxiety and pain of what happened on Sunday.”
The problem is: This issue isn’t a week old. It goes back at least 20 years. Mark O’Meara acknowledged that he may have done the same thing as Thompson and Choi – marking and then unintentionally replacing his ball in a wrong spot – in the 1997 Lancome Trophy in Paris, an event O’Meara won. Because the tournament was over when video presenting overwhelming evidence of an infraction came to light months later, no penalty was assessed. However, Jarmo Sandelin, a Swedish player on the European Tour most known for wearing fishnet shirts and cowboy boots in competition, raised a stink about it. Sandelin, who finished second in the tournament, accused O’Meara of “cheating” and said that he should return the trophy and winner’s check.
In the pre-Twitter era, the O’Meara incident faded away quietly. But the issue of amateur rules officials phoning in potential violations from home continues to rage.
Hopefully, leaders in our game will take a stand and end this scourge once and for all.