Golf Australia - - CONTENTS -

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.


Chair­man – Rules of Golf Com­mit­tee for the R&A, David Bon­sall, ad­dresses del­e­gates dur­ing the re­cent R&A In­ter­na­tional Con­fer­ence.

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