Crank up the slo-mo, root out the magnifying glass or the Hubble telescope, whatever it takes to examine in forensic detail a player’s every move. It’s Masters week, the greens will be terrifying, the nerves will be jangling, the hands shaking, the brains scrambled, the cameras trained and armchair vigilantes will be sitting with fingers poised ready to call out the unwary.
Last Sunday there was the now seemingly obligatory major championship rules rumpus courtesy of a sharp-eyed viewer and Lexi Thompson was penalised four shots for replacing her ball in the wrong spot on the green. “Is this a joke?” she said to the unfortunate rules officials who delivered the news as she was leaving the 12th green in the last round.
Thompson, who’d been leading, regrouped and birdied the 72nd hole to force a play-off with So Yeon Ryu but lost at the first extra hole.
Many, protracted, replays showed that the day before, at the 17th hole of the 3rd round, Thompson had indeed failed to replace her ball on the exact same spot from which she’d lifted it (unnecessarily, it seemed to some of us, in the pernickety way that professionals have). It was not, it seemed to me, an error visible to the naked eye and the ball did not seem to be any nearer the hole, merely a minuscule fraction off kilter. (The marker could not be seen at all when it was placed close under the ball but when the ball was replaced a bit of the marker could be seen.)
It was two strokes for failing to replace the ball on the right spot and two more strokes for signing for a wrong score – in times past, that would have been disqualification.
I’ve never been a fan of trial by viewer and am usually screaming at the telly, in suitably unladylike terms, “Why did you take the call; tell them to get lost.” However, once officials are alerted to a possible breach, they have to take action. (See under Referee on page 42 of the current Rules of Golf.)
Still, in this digital age, when the scrutiny is relentless and high definition, the degree of precision required to be 100 per cent perfect (that’s probably tautology) may be beyond a mere human. And this retrospective element to the punishment does nobody any favours. The powers that be have to come up with a solution that eliminates the possibility of the last few holes of a tournament or championship being thrown into disarray and disrupted artificially. Surely, once the card has been signed, the round done and dusted, that should be it?……
Professional golfers, playing on courses more manicured than top fashion models, like to think that they can reduce the game to a measured, ultra-meticulous exercise, with nothing left to chance – but they can’t. It’s an outdoor game, often played in wind and rain, over a cross-country course dotted with hazards and you have to learn to accept the bad bounces as well as the good. And, because, even in this age of satellites and CCTV, it’s impossible to police every inch, every millimetre, players are expected to do the right thing.
Marking the ball correctly on the green is a serious and important business – not least because of the opportunity it gives the unscrupulous or the desperate to cheat and gain an inch or two. It pays to give the process due care and attention but the main point, surely, is to ensure that you’re not creeping closer to the hole? What Lexi Thompson did did not, in my book, constitute a breach of the rules. And it certainly wasn’t cheating, which is a very different matter.
In his book ‘Golf from the Inside’, Mike Clayton, the Australian professional, golf course architect and writer who is always worth listening to, addresses the subject: “The game has always had a few who never could quite understand the intricacies of marking the ball on the green. It is a relatively simple process to put a coin directly behind the ball, but some nonetheless struggle…..The problem is that it is almost impossible to prove even if you are sure the guy is cheating……
“The best method of handling the situation I have heard of was in a match between a Sydney amateur, Rory Slade, and another player whose name I forget……Let’s call him X.
“X had a reputation as a fudger on the greens, but Rory was ready for him and determined not to be upset by anything X was doing on the greens. Sure enough, the ball started going down a few inches in front of the coin. It happened way more than once, but Rory was killing the guy so he wasn’t too bothered. At the 14th, he had a 6-footer to win the match 5 and 4.
“He simply picked the putt up and went to shake hands with X.
“‘What do you think you are doing?’
“”Well,’ Rory said, ‘I figured all those inches you have stolen so far probably add up to about 6 feet. I thought I would take all of mine in one lot.’
“X shook hands without another word of protest.”
Aussie rules OK.