Monday, April 3, 2017

Rules of Golf vs Sportsmanship: The Sad Case of Lexi Thompson and the LPGA Decision

It all looked good Sunday afternoon as Lexi Thompson and Suzann Pettersen made the turn at the ANA Inspiration. If I hadn't know it was the LPGA's first Major of the 2017 season I might have assumed the scene was a fast-forward snapshot of the Sunday singles matches at the 2017 Solheim Cup.

Thompson had a slender 2-shot lead and Pettersen was pushing hard. The golf was fantastic!

Then disaster struck. A viewer email calling a 3rd round violation on Thompson landed in the LPGA's inbox and backstage the wheels were set in motion to assess the situation. As Thompson and Pettersen battled through the 10th and 11th holes, video of the situation was called up and reviewed. A decision was reached and then the contenders were advised, first Lexi, then Suzann, and then the other players who were still on the course.

Thompson fought through disbelief and tears and got herself back into contention, only to lose on the first hole of a playoff.

In the end, as we all know, the 2017 ANA Inspiration champion was neither Lexi Thompson nor Suzann Pettersen, but So Yeon Ryu who was, herself, caught in a double bind not of her making, feeling that the 4-stroke penalty imposed on Thompson was essentially unjust but at the same time wanting to claim the ANA Inspiration victory.

The LPGA's official explanation of this fiasco leaves begging a number of questions: How long after the completion of a round can or should accusations of rules infractions be investigated? Why would the Tour management not rely on the rules on-course rules officials who accompany each group?

Judy Rankin, commentating on Golf Channel, and Dottie Pepper, commenting via Twitter, both expressing dismay, were in agreement: once the issue was put on the rules officials' table they had no choice but to address it.
But is that actually the case? Did Tour officials have options they failed to exercise? Ron Sirak and Beth Ann Nichols were alike appalled.

Was Any Action on the Part of the LPGA Rules Officials Even Necessary?

How the rules officials addressed that email remains problematic. There is always a certain imprecision involved in replacing the ball to the exact position where it came to rest. There is, as well, a given difference in perspective between Thompson, who was standing a bit to the side of her ball when she marked and then replaced it, and the camera that recorded the act, perhaps exacerbating the lack of precision by visual distortion. And there is the issue of time lapse - more than 24 hours between the questioned action and the rules infraction accusation.

That's the rules part of this situation. Now, for the sportsmanship part. How did the players respond? To my complete astonishment, they played on. Not one of them challenged the validity of the time lapse. Oddly, any of them could have been the target. It was Thompson because she was leading and on camera.

Where Does Sportsmanship Eclipse All Else?

What could Pettersen have done? Had she been more generous than she is - and I can't help but recall her behavior at the 2015 Solheim Cup that raised a similar question of rules vs sportsmanship - Pettersen could have simply picked up her pitching wedge rather than her driver when she teed off on the 13th hole - or the 14th, 15th, or 16th - and let Lexi pick up those 4 shots she'd just lost.  That she didn't speaks to Pettersen's flawed understanding of sportsmanship.

What could So Yeon Ryu have done? She learned the full scope of the situation when she was waiting in the scoring tent and the look on her face spoke volumes. Ryu, one of the kindest and most gentle players on the Tour, was appalled by the decision. And yet she, too, failed to take action - it could have come with her chip onto the 18th green in that playoff hole - within her control to right what she clearly believed was a fundamental wrong.

Alternatively, Ryu might have at least invited Lexi to join her in taking that Poppy's Pond victor's leap. Even a symbolic leap, which Thompson might or might not have accepted, would have sent the message Ryu (and the vast majority of the fans who were following this "situation") felt.

In the end, this situation demoralized the entire field and left LPGA fans in dismay. Let's put a stop to this obsession with the rules and put a stop of viewer-generated reviews of completed rounds. We're tarnishing the sportsmanship that has historically informed how we play the game.

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