The LPGA Tour has egg on its face right now, whether the organization realizes it or not. For that matter, so does the entire golfing industry. The finish to the ANA Inspiration, the LPGA’s signature event, was the most controversial finish to a major championship in nearly half a century, since the 1968 Masters when the championship was claimed by Bob Goalby after Roberto De Vicenzo signed an incorrect scorecard,
Let’s be clear; the LPGA rules officials on duty on Sunday enforced the rules as written as they were required to do. Lexi Thompson was penalized ex post facto for not replacing her ball properly after marking it on the 17th green during Saturday’s third round. She was then zapped with an additional two-stroke penalty for signing an incorrect scorecard, thus losing four shots to the field during Sunday’s final round.
Anyone reading this knows what happened; Thompson went from two shots clear of the field with six holes to play to two shots behind, rallied to get herself into a playoff before losing to So Yeon Ryu on the first hole of a sudden-death playoff.
Ryu is a fine player but her victory is tainted due to circumstances beyond her control.
According to Golf Channel broadcasters, Thompson’s penalty was accessed after an e-mail from a viewer pointing out the infraction. I have a huge problem with that and the LPGA, the PGA Tour, and the United States Golf Association should as well.
Video replay has been part of sports television since 1963 and was first used as an officiating aid in the old United States Football League in the mid 1980s. Today it’s a staple in every major sport, including golf.
But golf is different, in that rules officials incorporate information from television viewers into the decision-making process. I don’t know how this practice got started but it has always been an invitation to trouble.
I recently authored an article for Referee that detailed the history of video review. We made sure to include a section on golf; the piece was written in the aftermath of the controversies at last year’s U.S. Open and Women’s Open. In our view, the USGA and Fox, it’s broadcast partner mishandled both of those situations. But what happened Sunday in Palm Springs was worse.
I have no issue with rules officials using video to make decisions. But they should not, accept phone calls, e-mails, or smoke signals from television viewers under any circumstances whatsoever.
The reason is obvious. The officials assigned to tour events are trained professionals, who are knowledgeable in the rules of golf. Equally as important, they have no emotional or practical stake in the outcome of the competition.
That can’t be said of the person who contacted the LPGA on Sunday who, as of this writing, remains anonymous. Are they an avid fan? Someone with a rooting interest in the outcome? Someone perhaps trying to score points in fantasy golf?
It doesn’t matter. They had no business interjecting themselves into the competition and their e-mail, if that’s what it was, should have been deleted immediately.
The use of video replay in golf brings with it extraneous issues because of the nature of the sport. Football and baseball are played in stadiums and every player theoretically is on camera.
Golf however is contested in 18 different venues. Action is going on in all of them simultaneously and players who are more prominent or successful are under the watchful eye of the camera more frequently. Which is all the more reason for rules issues to be left in the hands of trained experts, not in the hands of those with grandiose ideas of self-importance.
How should the LPGA Tour (and the PGA Tour for that matter) handle video reviews? Essentially the way the four major team sports do so now and assign an official to ‘Replay Central’ during an event. The official’s sole job would be to monitor the telecast and be alert to any potential problems. If there is a questionable situation the official could ask the network to provide them with the appropriate video for review. The official in question could theoretically work from home or from tour headquarters and receive information from the player involved or rule official(s) on site if needed.
But first, every administrative body should adopt a local rule saying that outside communications concerning rules issues will no longer be allowed or accepted. That rule needs to be put in place NOW. It may be too late to prevent what happened at the ANA Inspiration. But hopefully what happened Sunday will show the higher ups from every governing body the error of their ways.
Rick Woelfel is based in Willow Grove Pennsylvania. In addition to covering the LPGA Tour for more than 30 years he has officiated four different sports and still works various levels of softball