IN MY OPINION: GEOFF OGILVY
AS the first major of every new season, the ANA Inspiration is always a big event on the LPGA Tour. It is the female equivalent of the Masters, in that it is always played on the same course. All of which is why I have always enjoyed watching on television, as I did again earlier this year.
Like everyone else, I was really impressed by the play of Lexi Thompson, who held the lead midway through the final round.
Or at least we all thought she did. But when rules officials appeared on the course, everything changed. A television viewer –not me, I hasten to add – had called in to report that Lexi had apparently mis-marked her ball on the 17th green a day earlier. When she was docked two-shots for the original rules breach and another two-shots for signing for a wrong score, her two-shot lead was suddenly a two-shot deficit. No wonder she was so upset after being told. I know I would have felt the same.
Regardless of what has transpired since – the story was all anyone was talking about in the lead-up to the Masters a week later – no player should be subjected to that sort of shock on the course, even if there is really no good time to deliver such news. It was so tough on her.
Having said that, the footage of the incident was pretty damning. There is no doubt Lexi broke a rule when she failed to replace her ball correctly. So there should have been a penalty. But why it had to be four-shots and not just two is unclear to me.
I know that, not so long ago, Lexi would have been disqualified, but two-shots is surely enough of a punishment. Adding two more seems excessive just because someone belatedly discovered what she had done. It shouldn’t matter when a problem like this comes to light, the penalty should be the same. If the call had come the day before, the penalty would have been two-shots. That it came as much as 24-hours later – which obviously has nothing to do with the player – made it four-shots. That doesn’t make sense. I thought it was absurd at the time and I still do.
A few days later, Phil Mickelson added to the on-going controversy when he told the world there are a few players on the PGA Tour who consistently mis-mark their balls on the greens. He is not wrong, but his comment deserves some clarification.
I see this all the time on every Tour. In order to get out of the way, players often rush to mark their balls. Maybe they are trying not to stand on someone’s line. Maybe they are a little bit “hot” after missing a putt. Whatever, they sometimes approach their balls from odd angles. So when they come back to replace the ball, the spot they end up on isn’t exactly correct.
This is caused by the speed of the greens. The surfaces are so fast, it is sometimes difficult to get the ball to sit still right in front of the coin. It moves slightly. So it has to be placed where it won’t move, which is probably where it was before it was marked anyway. I know this doesn’t come up much in non-tour golf where greens are generally slower. But on tour greens the ball can move a little, especially when it is not replaced in exactly the right spot. Anyway, that sort of thing occurs more when guys employ a ‘lazy’ marking process. I’m betting it happens six times a day on Tour, which is not to say there is always a dark intent to gain advantage. I do know of players who have been warned about their marking over the years. One in particular is completely ‘out to lunch’ when he marks his ball. And I have also seen a couple of other guys do it incorrectly. But it is pretty rare. I certainly don’t think it is quite as common as Phil was suggesting. Not in my experience.
I tend not to look for rules infractions. I’m not out there trying to be a referee, especially if I’m playing with anyone I know is a little suspect on the greens. I go out of my way to not watch them. I know it will only make me mad. I’m the same with all rules really. If someone is trying to ‘steal’ a few yards when dropping his ball after visiting a hazard, I stay well out of it. I tell him to drop where he thinks the ball crossed and to use his own conscience. I’m not interested in nit-picking. If a guy wants to do that, he has to deal with it his own way. If he can sleep at night, good luck to him.
Again though, I’m talking about rare occasions here. Very few Tour players are out there intentionally trying to gain illegal advantage. In my mind, laziness or carelessness or sloppiness or inattention is not cheating. All of that happens all of the time. And – while only she knows what was going through her mind – I think that is what Lexi did. Yes, at best, she was very blasé about how she marked her ball. But under pressure in a major championship, it is hard
to think normally. As I know from experience, your head is in a different place.
That’s really why most people make mistakes. Again, I see this all the time – I’ve done it myself – when players tee-up inches in front of the markers. It’s easy to do if you’re not paying attention. But there is no advantage to be gained. It’s just careless stuff that makes no difference on any hole. Besides, whenever I see someone doing anything a little dodgy, I think to myself, “there is a guy who is easy to beat because he is trying to steal an advantage that isn’t really there.”
Perhaps the bigger issue – and it was good to see it being addressed so promptly by the R&A and USGA – is where you draw the line when it comes to first the discovery of rules infractions then the application of any penalty. You can take the view that once cards are signed each day that is the end of the round. But you can also argue that only once all 72-holes are completed should scores be official. I can see the merits of both. But the real key is deciding whether video evidence should play a part in determining whether a player does enough to satisfy the ‘degree of precision’ required when – as was the case with Lexi – replacing the ball.
What I will say for sure is that no one should ever be penalised for signing for a wrong score. That’s accounting and has no part in modern professional golf. Think about it. With the technology they have available, officials know exactly what score I shot. They can tell me to the inch where my ball was for every swing I made. They know what my stance was like on every shot. They know how every one of my putts broke. They know everything. So writing numbers on a card should be no part of the test, which is why Lexi’s penalty should have been two-shots, not four. This whole thing would surely have been less of an issue if the eventual penalty had been seen to be more just and equitable. Everyone agrees she broke the rules, so a two-shot penalty was an appropriate punishment.
Going forward, I would like to see the R&A and the USGA continue to react quickly to “rules stuff.” Instead of sitting around and making changes only every four years, let’s make decisions as we go along. Let’s fix things right away, as they did with the Lexi situation.
If something silly happens – as it did with Dustin Johnson in the US Open last year – let’s assess it and make a decision instantly. The rules should be constantly evolving for the betterment of the game. Why wait four years to admit something needs fixing?
Besides, when 99.9 percent of the world’s golfers tee-off, they play every hole by their own rules. They play the game they want to play, which is exactly how it should be. If you want to prefer your lie before every shot, go ahead. If you want to ground your club in every bunker, go ahead.
Okay, if you want to play in a proper tournament, you need to adhere to the strict rules. But any other time, play golf any way you want. It’s still golf folks. And the R&A and USGA need to start saying that out loud. The game needs to be sold to anyone and everyone as fun. “Just play” should be our message.
THE RULES SHOULD BE CONSTANTLY EVOLVING FOR THE BETTERMENT OF THE GAME. WHY WAIT FOUR YEARS TO ADMIT SOMETHING NEEDS FIXING?
Chairman – Rules of Golf Committee for the R&A, David Bonsall, addresses delegates during the recent R&A International Conference.