Professional golf has a problem right now, a big problem. The rules of the game melded with the complexities of video review to create, to put it kindly, a mess.
In the process, Lexi Thompson was deprived of a major championship she was well on her way to winning and this year’s edition of the ANA Inspiration, the LPGA’s signature event, will forever be known as having had the most controversial finish in the 123-year history of major championship golf.
Let us say up front, the LPGA made the correct call be penalizing Thompson four strokes. That’s how the rules read and Sue Witters, the LPGA’s vice president for rules and competitions, and Heather Daly-Donofrio, the organization’s chief communications and tour operations officer were bound to enforce those rules, no matter how unsightly the situation appeared to observers.
The problem the sport has, (and by the sport, we mean, all the major tours, in the U.S. and abroad, along with the USGA) is its inability to anticipate the consequences of utilizing video replay while at the same time incorporating input from outside agents (i.e. television networks and/or television viewers) into the rules enforcement/application process.
That circumstance is not unique to golf. The four major American team sports all utilize video replay to varying degrees. All encounted unexpected consequences along Replay Road. That genie is out of the bottle forever.
But in the case of a team sport, the decisions that are reviewed are instantaneous, a last-second-shot in basketball, a bang-bang play at first-base baseball, goal-no goal in hockey, etc.
In golf, the nature of the sport requires decisions be made, with or without video replay, on events that may have occurred minutes or even hours before.
Most importantly, in a team sport, every player is in view of an official or a television camera. In golf, the competitors who are most successful, popular, or prominent are doubtless on camera more often than their peers, which undermines the principles of equity and fairness which are the sport’s foundation.
Now, add to this recipe the introduction of an outside agent, a television viewer who, unlike a rules official, may have a vested interest in the outcome of a competition. The identity of individual who touched off the Thompson incident by e-mailing the LPGA remains unknown as of this writing. We know absolutely nothing about them or their motives. But their action raise some troubling questions.
Did this individual have a grudge against Lexi Thompson? Were they perhaps turned down for an autograph?
Was this person a fan of another player in the field and did they have the misguided notion they were ‘helping’ their player by injecting themselves into the competition?
Was the actor connected in way to a company or organization involved with the sponsorship of the LPGA or an LPGA Tour player?
Did this individual have a betting interest in the outcome of the ANA Inspiration? We found at least one sports book that accepts wages on the LPGA, specifically on who will lead the official Money List at year’s end?
Any of these scenarios, but especially the last one, should concern not just the LPGA but anyone connected to any professional tour which televises its events.
Even if a player is 100 percent innocent of any wrongdoing, the mere fact that their actions are being reviewed for a possible rules violation would be enough, in many instances, to distract him or her. And that’s the edge that a gambler is looking for.
The Rules of Golf were largely written well before the introduction of replay technology into the sport. They must now be amended to accommodate the reality and ramifications of that technology.
The necessary changes cannot wait until the next rules revision in 2019. Changes need to be made now, starting with the Masters this week, and then next week at the PGA Tour stop on Hilton Head Island and at next week’s LPGA Tour stop in Hawaii.
What happened in Palm Springs last Sunday must never be allowed to happen again. We’re not saying that video review should not be a part of golf. But there should be a definitive protocol on how it may and may not be used, as is the case with team sports.
So here is our suggested protocol, based on the procedures utilized in other sports.
A video review official shall be assigned to each official tournament round. The video review official will be responsible for monitoring the video feed from the event’s official television partner. They shall have the power to initiate a video review if they believe a rule may have been breached.
An on-course official may initiate a video review if they have reason to believe a rule may have been breached.
A competitor may initiate a review if they have a reasonable doubt about their own actions. A competitor may not initiate a video review based on the actions of a fellow competitor.
No video review may be initiated or requested by an outside agency. This includes the event’s official television partner or anyone other than a rules official assigned to the event, or the player themselves.
A player shall be notified as soon as reasonably possible if they are the subject of a video review, and the reason(s) for that review.
No penalty will be accessed following a video review unless there is indisputable evidence that the player’s actions violated the Rules of Golf. The final decision shall be made by the video review official.
For the purposes of video review, the competitive round shall be considered concluded 30 minutes after the last competitor to finish their round signs their scorecard and leaves the scoring area. No video review pertaining to that round may be initiated beyond that time. If a review has been initiated within that 30-minute window the Committee may take whatever time it deems necessary to render a decision.
Once a decision has been made following a video review, the competitor(s) involved shall be notified as soon as it is practical to do so.
It is a fundamental principle of golf that the players police themselves. It is this principle that sets golf apart from other sports. No rational person would suggest that those who earn a living playing the game cannot be trusted to adhere to its rules,
But the availability of video technology is a reality in today’s world. Used properly, that technology can diffuse controversial situations rather than complicate them.
Rick Woelfel resides in Willow Grove, Pa. near Philadelphia. He has covered golf for more than three decades. He also umpires various levels of softball and has previously worked baseball, basketball, and football. He is the author of Clearly Seeing Replay which was published in Referee in January of 2017.