Why golf needs a controversial ruling at 2017 Masters

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Pro golf needs a rules makeover. What will lead to that? The genuine outcry that would come from a controversial and bizarre penalty costing a popular player a big tournament would certainly help.

What better place than Augusta National during the 2017 Masters?

Dustin Johnson’s one-stroke penalty at the 2016 U.S. Open could have done it. But two big factors caused the outcry and attention to be limited.

One, that tournament wrapped up right as Game 7 of the NBA Finals was starting. Was DJ’s penalty ever going to take significant attention away from LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers overcoming a 3-1 lead to beat the 73-9 Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals? Not likely.

Two, it was especially unlikely as Johnson won easily, anyway. He should have won by four shots instead of three but really, that’s not going to upset the apple cart too much.

What happened to Lexi Thompson at the ANA’s Inspiration spotlighted how ridiculous some of golf’s rules are, and the sheer stupidity which which they’re applied.

For of you still unaware, Thompson stood on the 13th tee on Sunday with a three-shot lead. At that point, she was approached by a rule’s official who had a double-dose of bad news.

While watching a recorded version of Saturday’s round, a viewer at home noticed that after marking her ball on the green, Thompson had replaced it in a slightly different location. For the sake of this argument, we’ll be generous and say it was an inch. So, a two-stroke penalty was being assessed.

Unfortunately for Thompson, the damage didn’t stop there. She was also informed that because the infraction had occurred on Saturday, an incorrect scorecard was signed. At one point, that would have been a disqualification. It’s been modified in recent years, though nowhere near enough. So, another two-shot penalty was being assessed to Thompson. In other words, what we’re generously calling an inch cost Thompson four shots.


A three-shot lead was now a one-shot deficit. She did scramble to force her way into a playoff, but lost there.

If after reading all of that you thought “Wow. That sounds like what Mr. McMahon did that to Stone Cold Steve Austin at least a dozen times during their feud,” know that you’re not alone.

Anyone in any country who has anything to do with the rules of golf needs to know something.

This is not growing your game.

Is anyone delusional enough to think that young fans cheering for Thompson saw that and got more inspired to pick up a club? Let’s ask these two.


If that doesn’t do it for you, let’s consider this angle.

So Yeon Ryu won a major on Sunday. Is anyone going to remember the ANA Inspiration for her win? No. This will forever be remembered as the tournament taken from Thompson, not the event won by Ryu.

That’s an incredibly unfair thing for a major champion to have to deal with. 

One possible solution would be to say that signing an incorrect scorecard is no longer a penalty. If the mistake was made, the two-shot penalty can be enforced retroactively, and everyone could move on. In this situation, Thompson still would have left the 13th tee with a lead.

That’s a reasonable solution, but should only be the bare minimum of what’s actually done.

At the professional level, there’s no need to have scorecards, at least not officially. Each group has witnesses, including a scoreboard holder. What’s the point of the actual scorecard? They can be kept for reference, but do they actually need to be so official?

In club tournaments and at lower levels, sure. But the professional tours shouldn’t be afraid to use the resources they have and do away with the antiquated ones. Remember, golf used to use persimmon drivers, as well. Those were replaced by better equipment. Scorecards can suffer the same fate. The sun will still come up the next day.

Admittedly, that leads to an issue. Golf likes to fancy itself as the same game at all levels. Scorecards are a part of club championships across the world, why shouldn’t they be a part of professional events? It’s an argument that actually carries some weight. But only for a few seconds.

The problem is that professional golf is already much different than anything being played at your home course, and it goes well beyond the skill of the players.

If you hit an errant shot in your club championship, who’s helping you find the ball? Yourself, your playing partner(s), and if you’re lucky, you might get golfers from an adjacent hole. On tour, you get all of those, plus marshals, caddies, and dozens of people in the galleries. If you’re lucky, you might even get a TV cameraman who tracked it.

That leads us right into another point. In a local tournament, it’s much easier to get away with dastardly cheating, like placing your ball one inch away from where it was marked. If your playing partner doesn’t realize it, nobody else will. The fairways aren’t lined with spectators. There’s nobody watching at home with way too much free time on his/her hands ready to call in.

It’s a different game.

But TV cameras don’t only fail to pick up shots in your club championship. Not even close. TV cameras actually only pick up a small portion of shots in a tournament. Some of those shots are strikingly similar to the one Thompson was facing and eventually penalized for. In fact, Phil Mickelson has stated that this already happens, which you can read about here.

Oftentimes, when a golfer is facing a putt of only a few feet, cameras will cut away. They’ll go to someone else or a commercial. The cameras will stay rolling, but the putt will only be shown if its missed. So, the armchair referees go to bed every night not knowing how many penalties they missed. It’s a wonder they can function at all.

Really, the armchair referees have to go.

One problem is that they don’t see every shot. The other is one that’s been said thousands of times, but is worth repeating.

In no other sport can fans call in and tell officials that a call was missed. If they could, sporting events that normally take three hours would all of a sudden take three days. It’s ludicrous that this continues to happen.

If golf’s governing bodies want officials, they should hire referees. Every group would get one and that person’s job would be to observe every shot taken in that group. If a penalty gets missed, so be it.

If those same governing bodies want to stick tight to the idea that the players are their own referees, so be it. But for that to be the case, fans can’t call in rules infractions from home.

One way or another, that has to go.

The problem is that what happened to Thompson just isn’t going to linger. While its grown, women’s golf is still a niche sport. On one of the busiest sports weeks of the year, something like that is easy to get swept under the rug. That doesn’t mean that it was ignored, but it was quickly dismissed to talk about the Final Four, MLB Opening Weekend, the NBA and NHL playoff races, Tony Romo, the Masters, and even Wrestlemania. It was a controversy, but it didn’t stick.

In a strange way, golf needs a big controversy to stick. It needs outcry from die-hards and casual fans alike. It needs to know that kids around world saw what happened and decided that golf was not for them.

If that happens, maybe powers that be in golf will get together and decide that it’s time to bring the rules into the 21st Century.

Fans of golf must cheer for this to happen soon, and it can’t happen soon enough. It may seem counter intuitive to want the 2017 Masters to be marred by a rules controversy. But for the betterment of the game, it would be a very good thing.