The LPGA’s black eye isn’t going away.
Lexi Thompson may have been hit hardest when a TV viewer intervened as an armchair referee to help decide yet another major championship, but she wasn’t the only player wobbled by the nature of the blindside blow.
Nearly three weeks have passed since Thompson lost the ANA Inspiration after being hit with a controversial four-shot penalty in the final round, but even fellow players are still smarting.
There’s something about this viewer intervention that’s different than any of the past in the men’s or women’s games. There’s something about this one that won’t go away.
There’s lingering anger in the player ranks.
“Everyone’s pissed off, not just players,” two-time major champion Cristie Kerr said. “Random golfers I see are coming up and saying, ‘Can you believe what happened? It’s an outrage.’ People aren’t happy.”
Thompson may have lost the ANA Inspiration in a playoff to So Yeon Ryu, but LPGA pros as a group appear to have lost something, too. They seemed to have finally lost all patience with TV viewers getting free reign to be armchair referees.
“We’re all up in arms over that,” said Brittany Lincicome, a two-time winner of the ANA Inspiration. “There’s definitely a lot of us talking about this, and it’s definitely very frustrating for us.”
There is frustration among players in not knowing if Thompson’s fate is finally going to motivate the USGA to curb, tame or outright abolish viewer interventions as armchair rules officials. There is also frustration in not knowing how much the LPGA is pushing to bring about that change.
LPGA pros say they aren’t hearing anything from the USGA or their own tour.
GolfChannel.com requested an interview with LPGA commissioner Mike Whan for this story on Tuesday and was told he was traveling, then was told on Wednesday that he was in meetings at a conference and was told on Thursday that he was unavailable while traveling again. When GolfChannel.com asked if an interview could be set up on Friday, an LPGA spokesperson said he still wouldn’t be available.
Three requests to interview senior USGA officials for this story over the last week were unfulfilled, though a spokesperson provided a statement and background information.
“I have a ton of concerns, and I feel like it’s just being swept under the rug,” Lincicome said. “It feels like there’s nothing being done, and it’s just, ‘Hey that’s the way the rule is, and this is how it’s going to continue to be.’
“We’ve been talking about it as players, and I think we’re all on the same page in not knowing if anything’s really going to be done about viewers calling in or sending emails. I don’t know if we need somebody to take up a petition, and we all need to sign it and give it to the USGA, but they’re not even talking to us about whether they are trying to come up with a better solution.”
For a lot of LPGA pros, it has come to the point where “enough is enough” with these viewer interventions.
For them, Thompson’s four-shot wallop was the last straw.
Thompson’s agent, Bobby Kreusler, told GolfChannel.com that Lexi isn’t ready to comment publicly, but that she will speak to media for the first time since the ANA next Wednesday at the Volunteers of America Texas Shootout.
Kreusler said he isn’t surprised players feel like there’s unfinished business in the wake of the ANA ruling.
“We have been inundated with emails, comments and letters from people expressing their outrage, and not only their disappointment but disgust over what happened,” Kreusler said. “At this point, I think, on behalf of Lexi, we are entitled to have a true and transparent accounting of what happened, by that I mean all the information behind how this occurred, ranging from whether this was actually a viewer, where they were from, why there was a delay (in reporting), where the email was actually sent to, who received it, and on down the line.
“I’m looking for that information not only on Lexi’s behalf, but on behalf of the entire field, every player that was in that tournament and will play in future tournaments, because this could have happened to anyone.
“The field and all of the LPGA players are deserving of knowing exactly how the email happened, who was responsible, so we can make sure it was an honest, fair and equitable playing field for all. Unfortunately, I don’t have that feeling right now and there are an awful lot of people out there who feel exactly the same way.”
If you need a refresher, Thompson was two shots ahead on the back nine in the final round of the ANA Inspiration, putting on a tour-de-force performance in her bid to win her second major championship. As Thompson was making her way to the 13th tee, Sue Witters approached her with devastating news. The LPGA’s vice president of rules and competition told Thompson she was being penalized two shots for violating Rule 20-7c for incorrectly marking her ball on the 17th green in Saturday’s round. Additionally, she was being penalized two more shots for violating Rule 6-6d for signing an incorrect scorecard.
The LPGA explained afterward that a viewer had emailed their fan feedback site with the possible infraction on Sunday as Thompson was playing late into the front nine, and that an LPGA.com staffer quickly forwarded the email to Witters with Thompson playing the ninth hole. Witters quickly went to the Golf Channel TV compound to review video.
Thompson was in tears as she teed up to play the 13th, going from two shots ahead to two shots down in practically the blink of an eye. Still, she somehow managed to birdie that hole, the 15th and the 18th to get into the playoff with Ryu.
Kreusler said Thompson is grateful for the outpouring of support she has received since the ANA Inspiration ended, and that it isn’t limited to fans.
“We’ve also been contacted by several sponsors, including those that might be the biggest on the LPGA, expressing their extreme displeasure and unhappiness and their belief that there needs to be a full accounting in a truly transparent manner,” Kreusler said.
For Thompson’s colleagues, there’s a feeling of unfinished business to this ruling, including an intense clamor to know the identity of the viewer who emailed in the possible infraction.
“We all want to know who it was,” Kerr said. “That’s the bigger story here. It’s relevant who it’s coming from.”
There’s an element of golf that sees viewer intervention adding to the nobility of the game, to making sure any rule violation is addressed.
But players see something potentially sinister exposed about armchair refereeing in the way the Thompson ruling came down.
What if a “viewer” is actually another player or caddie, or a parent of a player, or a friend of a player? And what if a “viewer” with a vested interest sees an infraction in an early round but holds on to the information until the final round, waiting to see if reporting the infraction would assist a player whom the viewer favors? By holding on to the information, the “viewer” knows he could inflict the most possible harm by waiting until after the player signs her scorecard.
While actual rules officials have ethical duties to the field, armchair referees do not. They can selectively report, or not report, violations they witness.
If a viewer with a grudge focuses on monitoring just a single player, is the honorable game as honorable allowing that?
“They definitely aren’t going to release this viewer’s name,” Lincicome said. “It’s probably some guy living at home with his mother, sitting at his computer watching. But you don’t know. It’s another reason this is so ridiculous and they need to stop allowing viewers to call in.”
Kerr sees a problem with the motivation viewers may have.
“A person could withhold the information until after a player signs her scorecard,” Kerr said. “What if it’s an agent, or a friend of a friend of the winner? I’m not saying that happened, not at all, but it could happen, where it’s somebody biased toward one of the players on the leaderboard.
“It’s another reason you would like to know who the viewer is. This is too big a story not to know who it is.”
Who is the viewer who reported Thompson’s violation?
GolfChannel.com asked the LPGA for the viewer’s name but was denied the request.
Why? LPGA chief of tour operations Heather Daly-Donofrio said it was tour policy not to divulge viewer emails.
GolfChannel.com asked Daly-Donofrio if the tour verified the identity of the viewer who emailed the infraction.
“We have verified who the person is,” Daly-Donofrio said. “I can tell you with complete certainty that it wasn’t a player, it wasn’t a caddie, and it wasn’t anybody related to anybody that I know connected with the tour in any way.”
While Whan wasn’t available to be interviewed for this story, he was empathetic to Thompson in the immediate wake of the ANA ruling.
“It’s frustrating,” Whan told Matt Adams on Sirius XM PGA Tour radio two days after the ANA. “It’s embarrassing. It’s one of those situations where the penalty does not match the crime.”
Whan also said his staff would review the nature of armchair refereeing in the wake of the ANA ruling.
“I think it’s a fair critique and a fair criticism whether or not somebody can point something out that causes us to review it, and whether or not we should do that a day later . . . To change requires us to think through the pros and cons and make sure we are making the right decision. We are going through that process, but we are not going to rush in and do is simply draped in the anxiety and pain of Sunday,” Whan said.
Last week, GolfChannel.com also sought an interview with Whan on this topic. A tour spokesperson replied that Whan was releasing a statement instead, one that indicated the LPGA would be relying on the USGA and R&A to address this complicated issue.
“The Masters was an opportunity for me to meet with the heads of the USGA and the R&A, as well as heads of the PGA and European tours,” Whan said. “To be honest, I’m optimistic about the potential outcome of those discussions. It’s quite clear to me that the organizations that govern the Rules of Golf fully understand the challenges that we faced at the ANA Inspiration and are already actively discussing potential changes.”
When the USGA backed the LPGA’s ANA ruling the day after the event, it cited its proposed modernization of the Rules of Golf as future help in certain viewer call-in situations. Proposed Rule 1.3a(2) will provide that “so long as the player does all that he can be reasonably expected under the circumstances to make an accurate estimation or measurement, the player’s reasonable judgment will be accepted even if later shows to be wrong by other information.”
The USGA plans to implement the modernization proposal in 2019, but USGA director of public relations Janeen Driscoll confirmed that the governing body is “listening and reviewing all options,” including the possibility of expediting some of these rule changes.
For a lot of LPGA pros, changes to viewer intervention can’t come fast enough.
“In this day and age, I just don’t think anybody should be able to call in and affect the outcome of a tournament,” Hall of Famer Juli Inkster told GolfChannel.com. “You have the scorer there, you have your other two playing partners there. Golf is a game of integrity. I just think there isn’t another sport where you can actually call in and make a difference. I just think they need to get rid of it.”
Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and Rickie Fowler are among PGA Tour pros who have voiced the same opinion about viewer interventions.
The way the Rules of Golf work now, once final-round scores are finalized, the tournament is official. Any infraction discovered after that cannot be applied.
Hall of Famer Judy Rankin believes the rule should be amended to where results are official after the close of every round.
Anna Nordqvist, who lost the U.S. Women’s Open at CordeValle last summer after a video replay showed she grazed a few grains of sand taking back her 5-iron in a fairway bunker in a playoff with Brittany Lang, believes video review needs immediate addressing. Nordqvist’s complaint was also with the timing of her penalty, which gave Lang a certain advantage playing her final full shot in that playoff.
“It was disappointing to see another bad timing,” Nordqvist said of the Thompson ruling. “This rule is the major one that needs to be changed now.”
Inkster said the USGA and R&A’s new rules modernization should be amended to more thoroughly address viewer call-ins.
“That needs to be at the top of the priority list,” Inkster said.
The LPGA eagerly awaits such a change in hopes it helps heal its black eye.