AUGUSTA, GA. – Not long ago the mere presence of Tiger Woods guaranteed drama at major championships.
Woods will not play in the Masters this week, but golf has found an alternative way to ensure suspense: exploring the many ways anachronistic rules can obscure the game’s best stories.
As the 2017 Masters nears, most players interviewed sounded disgusted by the way the rules of the game are enforced.
At the U.S. Women’s Open in 2016, Anna Nordqvist grazed the sand in a fairway bunker with her 5-iron on the 17th hole, the second hole of a playoff with Brittany Lang. It wasn’t until after Nordqvist hit her third shot into the 18th that she was told she would incur a two-shot penalty. Lang heard the news in time to play safely into the green and win the tournament.
At the men’s U.S. Open in 2016, Dustin Johnson saw his ball move on the fifth green on Sunday but wasn’t informed until the 12th hole that he might (and eventually did) receive a one-stroke penalty after the round, causing perhaps the greatest furor ever over a golf ruling. He still won.
At the 2016 PGA Championship, Jordan Spieth hit his tee shot on the seventh on Friday into a puddle on a cart path. It took 10 minutes and four drops before a rules official allowed Spieth to play. When Spieth’s left toe appeared to come close to casual water, that moment — which did not incur a penalty — became the story of the day.
Last week at the first women’s major of the year, the ANA Inspiration, Lexi Thompson was informed after the 12th hole Sunday that she had been given a four-stroke penalty for an alleged infraction that occurred on Saturday and was brought to officials’ attention by a television viewer via e-mail.
Thompson was given a two-stroke penalty for replacing her ball on the green a half-inch from its original position. She was given another two-stroke penalty for signing an incorrect scorecard. Her two-shot lead suddenly became a two-shot deficit, and she eventually lost in a playoff to So Yeon Ryu.
The LPGA correctly assessed Thompson’s penalties, and therein lies the problem. Golf’s rules are intended to protect the game and yet they damage its popularity.
Thompson was penalized after the fact, and allowed to play on without knowledge that she would be penalized, which might have altered the way she would have played. She also was penalized for signing a scorecard she believed to be correct.
Even traditionalists should admit that allowing viewers to call penalties and allowing rules officials to delay judgments too often has turned great tournaments into annoying stories.
A golfer should never have to play a meaningful hole in a major championship without knowing what his or her score is. Golf’s tournament organizers and ruling bodies should take responsibility for immediately identifying and adjudicating penalties. Golf should be the simplest of sports, not the most adjudicated.
“I think we’ve seen some stuff in the past year that is not making the game look very good at all,” Rickie Fowler said. “There’s no other sport where people can call or e-mail in or contact officials regarding an issue.”
The handling of Johnson’s alleged infraction led to a rules change. As of Jan. 1, courses and tournament committees can enact a local rule to eliminate penalties for accidental movement of a golf ball. Why the rule even still exists is a mystery, but at least major tournaments can avoid penalizing players who have done nothing wrong.
“I just think that what’s happened the last 12 months with all these rules controversies in the game, it just doesn’t put out a good image for us and for the game of golf,” Rory McIlroy said. “I think Tiger said it best. People at home don’t need to be wearing striped shirts.
“It was tough on Lexi. The two-shot penalty, fine. There was a rules infraction there. I get it. But the two shots for signing an incorrect scorecard? She didn’t know she was signing an incorrect scorecard at that time and she didn’t have a chance to rectify that. That was the one that really, I think, outraged most people.”