Why pro golf’s rule changes aren’t quite so leisurely this time

Golf's governing bodies typically roll out changes at a genteel pace. Why did the 'Lexi Thompson Rule' take effect basically overnight? 

LM Otero/AP
Lexi Thompson pauses after becoming emotional while speaking to reporters about her recent tournament loss Wednesday, April 26, 2017, in Irving, Texas. Thompson suffered a four-stroke penalty that cost her a major earlier this month after a spectator called in to point out the infraction.

Golf, a game built on honor and fair play, is different from other professional sports. A golfer is expected to put their ball back exactly where they marked it, or lifted it off the green, or to penalize themselves if they ground their club in the dirt on a practice swing.

But what if, to the naked eye, a golfer appears to be playing fairly, but a video close-up or slo-mo reveals they replaced their ball a half-inch too close or kicked up a few grains of sand from a bunker?

This is the dilemma professional golf is in during the age of instant replay and armchair referees, equipped with television remotes that can rewind and zoom in. Lexi Thompson lost the first LPGA major of this year after a viewer emailed the tour, charging her with mis-marking her ball, and Dustin Johnson nearly lost the US Open in June after he was found to have bumped his ball forward just the slightest bit.  

After public outcry this month within the professional golf world and on social media, the ruling bodies of the game appear to be listening. In a shift from their longstanding approach of updating the Rules of Golf every four years and the Decisions every two years, the United States Golf Association (USGA) and the Royal & Ancient (R&A) implemented a set of rules on Tuesday, effective immediately, that puts a player’s word above certain video evidence that might contradict them. 

We’re all responsible for applying rules and calling penalties on ourselves,” said Thomas Pagel, the USGA’s senior director of rules, according to the Associated Press. “But we’ve seen situations where there is no way the player or anyone around the player could be aware of that. When dealing with video evidence, should we be holding players to a high standard simply because they’re on television?”

Like other major professional sports, golf has in many respects evolved in tandem with technology, having welcomed lasers, Microsoft Surface tablets, and virtual reality onto the links. But when it comes down to technology versus a player’s word, golf’s governing bodies are moving much more quickly than ever before to preserve the centuries-old game’s code of ethics, says Steven Schlossman, a history professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Penn., who specializes in the history of sports and golf.

“[W]e have something new under the sun,” Dr. Schlossman tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview. “The fact the main bodies are making changes quickly certainly indicates they are deeply concerned about the levels of public reaction and concerns about unfairness in shaping outcomes.”

In the new decision in the Rules of Golf, essentially the dogma of the game, the sport’s governing bodies announced two new standards, according to the Associated Press. One is that a player can avoid a penalty if the violation could not be noticed with the naked eye. In the other, officials can eliminate penalties if they feel players made a “reasonable judgment” in taking a drop or replacing their golf balls on the putting green.

In an interview with Golf Magazine, Mr. Pagel of the USGA said the decision did not result from any single incident or set of incidents, but rather the governing bodies’ ongoing efforts to keep the 273-year-old Rules of Golf apace with modern times.

But headlines quickly dubbed the decision the “Lexi Thompson Rule,” referring to the kerfuffle involving the 22-year-old earlier this month. On the 17th green of the ANA Inspiration in southern California, Ms. Thompson marked her ball before she sunk a 15-inch putt to maintain her lead. The next day, a television viewer emailed the tour to point out that Thompson appeared to replace her ball in a slightly different spot.

She was penalized two strokes for the mis-marked ball and another two strokes for signing an incorrect scorecard that resulted from the viewer’s email. The four-stroke penalty cost Thompson the lead. She managed to force a playoff with the new leader, So Yeon Ryu, but still came up short. Naturally, Thompson was devastated.

In her first interview since the incident, Thompson, who needed more than 30 seconds to compose herself, said on Wednesday that she didn’t intentionally put her ball back down in the wrong spot before she sunk the putt.

"I have seen the video and I can see where they're coming from with it. It might have been, I guess, me rotating the ball,'' she said. "I have always played by the Rules of Golf.... I did not mean it at all.''

Thompson’s emphasis on adhering to the Rules hearkens back to the origins of the game. Started in 15th century Scotland, it is a sport that reflects the upper-class values of the men who first played it, says Schlossman at Carnegie Mellon. Players not part of this elite have taken up this code of honor. But this stress on fair play serves a second purpose. It allows golf to be played over the wide area of a golf course, enlisting not just judges, but also players, fans, and, in some cases, TV viewers to also officiate.

“It’s highly problematic for [the league] to respond to people who have no official capacity,” says Jeffrey Sammons, a history professor at New York University, and a former member of USGA’s museum and library committee. “They are in a modern world, but they are trying to stay in a bygone age.”

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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