Sports Law Blog
All things legal relating
to the sports world...
Monday, April 03, 2017
Lexi Thompson and the application of golf's rules
Last Sunday, the golf world suffered through another difficult rules incident when the LPGA, acting on a tip from a television viewer, imposed a four-stroke penalty on Lexi Thompson for a small rules violation commited during play concluded on the previous day. This penalty probably cost Ms. Thompson the tournament (one of the LPGA’s majors), as she wound up losing in a playoff.
Commentary immediately following this fiasco predictably and appropriately included criticism about acting on tips from TV viewers and the notion that a penalty could be imposed long after play in a given round had concluded. One thing missing, however, was detailed analysis about the substantive ruling itself. Most commentators appeared to presume that the LPGA had no choice in the matter because the rules of golf clearly prescribed the outcome, painful as the outcome was.
Was this really the case? A closer look at the rules of golf suggest that an entirely different result would have been entirely defensible, and in many ways far better for the game.
The LPGA stated that Thompson had violated rule 20-7C by playing from the wrong place. This violation allegedly happened when Thompson marked her ball on the green in accordance with the rules, picked it up, and then placed the ball back on the green before putting. TV replays showed that Thompson inadvertently failed to place the ball exactly where it was when she picked it up. This put Thompson in apparent violation of rules 16-1b and 20-1, which require a marked ball to be “replaced.” When Thompson then putted the ball from this location, she (in the opinion of the LPGA) played from the wrong place.
I do not believe that was the only interpretation of the rules available to the LPGA. First, Rule1-4 states, “If any point in dispute is not covered by the Rules, the decision should be made in accordance with equity.”
Second, the meaning of the word “replace” does not necessarily mean that Thompson violated the rule. One might, as the LPGA apparently did, interpret that word to mean that the competitor must place her ball in exactly the same place as it rested when picked up. Of course, no competitor ever does precisely that. Every ball, by reason of human error, is placed back on the green some minute distance from its original location. Thus, the meaning of “replace” cannot refer to exactly where the ball previously rested. Instead, there is a margin for error that must be permitted.
How large a margin should there be? One possibility is to interpret “replace” so that a player doesn’t violate the rule if the ball is close enough to its original location to avoid any meaningful advantage. Another possibility is to interpret the word so that the player doesn’t violate the rule if the variance from the original location is within a distance capable of casual perception by others present on the green. Together, these interpretations probably conform to everyday practice. Golfers do not stand over their fellow competitors to make sure that balls get replaced exactly in the same location. They are content to police the rule within what’s casually perceptible because errors smaller than that do not lead to meaningful advantage.
This interpretation would have kept Thompson in the clear. She clearly did not gain any material advantage from her error. From watching TV replays, I seriously doubt her ball was more than an inch from where it originally lay. Her putt was extremely short and probably would have been conceded by an opponent in match play. No one, to my knowledge, has claimed that Thompson made her putt easier.
Additionally, I think it is significant that no one (including her fellow competitors, their caddies, or any rules official who may have originally been present) noticed the supposed misplacement. Instead, the problem came to light because a viewer watching TV emailed the LPGA. Yes, when you watch the replay and you’re told to look for it, it’s possible to see that Thompson’s ball is perceptibly “misplaced.” However, it’s not really apparent without a zoom-in shot, and I highly doubt that anyone watching her at the time could have seen it without standing over her to monitor every movement in detail. No golfer does that to a fellow competitor.
Accordingly, there is ample room to argue that Thompson did indeed “replace” her ball within the meaning of the applicable rules. I am of course aware that one could reach a different interpretation, one based on a more literal meaning attached to “replace.” However, it’s not as if the Rules of Golf require remorseless literalism. For example, Rule 20-1 clearly states that a player suffers a one-stroke penalty if she picks up her ball without marking it first. Nevertheless, decision 2-4/3 excuses such a violation, despite the apparently “no exceptions” wording of the rule, when a player reasonably makes a mistake about whether her putt has been conceded in match play.
Mind you, I am not claiming that only one interpretation of the rules is possible. Rather, I’m pointing out that the rules used to punish Thompson were not as clear as people may think, and that the precise outcome of her situation is not truly “covered by the Rules.” Thus, equity should have played a role in applying the rules to Thompson, and I believe that equity would have led away from finding her in breach of the rules.
It may be appropriate to come up with new rules about not accepting violations found by TV viewers or imposing a "statute of limitations" on how much time can pass before rules violations will not be acted upon. However, it also behooves those responsible for applying golf's rules to think carefully about the role of equity in their administration of existing rules. Observers of golf will keep calling in potential minor rules violations, and escalating all of them into tournament-altering incidents risks souring the public on the game itself.