RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. — What is a major championship without a television viewer and the Rules of Golf seizing the story line and evoking responses similar to that of the tournament leader Lexi Thompson?
“Is this a joke?” Thompson asked an LPGA rules official who had informed her between the 12th green and 13th tee of the final round of the ANA Championship that she was being assessed two two-stroke penalties for an inadvertent and nearly imperceptible violation made in the third round a day earlier.
“No, it isn’t?” Sue Witters, vice president tour rules and competition for the LPGA, replied.
The four penalty strokes erased Thompson’s two-stroke lead and replaced it with a two-stroke deficit that is certain to overshadow the second major championship won by So Yeon Ryu, who defeated Thompson by holing a six-foot birdie putt on the first hole of a playoff at Mission Hills Country Club.
“I didn't realize I did that,” Thompson said through tears. “I did not intentionally do that. But you know what, I fought hard coming in and I didn’t give up. But so many players played great, so congrats to So Yeon.”
Ryu was jubilant and made the traditional winner’s leap into Poppie’s Pond adjacent to the 18th green. But she also was gracious.
“It’s a very unfortunate situation,” Ryu said moments after adding the ANA Inspiration to her U.S. Women’s Open victory in 2011. “It just hurts me as well. It’s a weird feeling. But at the same time I’m really proud of myself and just appreciate everything right now.”
The violation of Rule 20-7c (playing from the wrong place) occurred on the 17th green on Saturday, when Thompson marked her ball with a coin, then replaced it, though not in the exact spot, maybe less than a half-inch.
“I’m 100 percent sure it was not intentional,” Witters said. “Lexi is a class A player.”
Thompson was assessed two strokes for the penalty and another two strokes for having signing an incorrect scorecard. Officially, her Saturday 67 became a 71.
The LPGA had been notified of the violation on Sunday via an email from an unidentified viewer and addressed to the LPGA.com’s Fan Feedback. The email came in when Thompson and playing partner Suzann Pettersen were on the ninth hole. Rules officials headed to the television compound and reviewed a recording, and concluded that Thompson indeed had improperly replaced the ball.
It was eerily reminiscent of the U.S. Open at Oakmont last summer, when Dustin Johnson, in the midst of the final round, was assessed a penalty for having caused his ball to move on a green. He went on to win anyway. There, too, was the penalty given Tiger Woods in the 2013 Masters for having taken an improper drop that was identified via television by David Eger, a former senior director of rules and competition for the USGA.
And in the U.S. Women’s Open last year, Brittany Lang defeated Anna Nordqvist in a playoff after Nordqvist had been penalized for brushing the sand in a fairway bunker, an infraction brought to the USGA’s attention by a Fox Sports cameraman.
The backlash against the rules and the rulings was widespread and immediate in all three instances, as it was on Sunday, if Twitter is the guide.
“Sure, but what’s my choice?” Witters said. “I can’t go to bed tonight knowing that I let a rule slide. You know, it’s a hard thing to do, and it makes me sick, to be honest with you.”
It was an unfortunate and untimely reminder that the USGA and R&A have proposed several rules changes that if adopted would go into effect in 2019. One of them would seemingly prevent this situation that occurred here.
The ruling, by all accounts was a correct one, but is among those being assessed and possibly replaced by what is termed “a reasonable judgment standard,” that if a player in his or her judgement made a reasonable attempt at returning the ball to the correct spot that the player cannot be second-guessed.
Thompson, meanwhile, somehow retained her composure, holed a 25-foot birdie putt on 13 and even regained the lead momentarily with another birdie at 15.
“I just regrouped,” Thompson said. “My caddie helped me out tremendously. He just said, ‘Stay with it. You can still win.’ But it’s all to the fans. They helped me get through the rest of the round, which helped a lot.”
Thompson came to the last hole needing a birdie to tie, an eagle to win and reached the green on the par 5 in two, leaving her a 12-footer to win. The crowd chanted, “Lexi, Lexi,” as she made her way to the green. Moments later, her putt narrowly missed on the low side to complete a round of five-under-par 67. Thompson and Ryu, who shot a final-round 68, each completed 72 holes in 14-under-par 274.
In the playoff, back on the par-5 18th, Thompson was forced to lay up short of the water with her second shot after hitting her tee shot in the right rough, while Ryu missed the green to the right with hers, inches from tumbling into Poppie’s Pond. Thompson ultimately missed her birdie putt, and Ryu got up and down for birdie to win.
“I thought Lexi fought back really, really hard,” Pettersen said. “Just shows what character she has. That's a tough one to get right in your face. But she dealt with it and she came out on the strong side.”