As we commented previously, the rules of golf are only as good as they are administered. In recent years, some of the top golfers in the world competing in major championships (Tiger Woods at the 2013 Masters, Dustin Johnson at the 2016 U.S. Open, and Lexi Thompson at this year’s ANA Inspiration) have been embroiled in rules controversies in part attributable to questionable decisions made by officials supervising the events.
Recently, a bizarre rules snafu at a Korean LPGA event resulted in canceling all of the scores for the first round, a perhaps unprecedented action. The top rules official for the KLPGA promptly resigned. Players, golf officials and fans were somewhat dumbstruck. How could this happen?
Apparently, the problem started with the maintenance crew before the commencement of the first round of the KB Financial Star Championship. The aprons around greens on some holes were mowed so closely that it was difficult to ascertain the perimeter of the greens. Two players, including the co-leader, were assessed two-stroke penalties for marking and lifting balls they thought were on the green but were not. The plot thickened when officials determined that four other players had committed the same offense.
The tournament committee initially decided to rescind the penalties and not to impose penalties on any other players. This seemed like a pragmatic and fair solution, given that the players had not intentionally violated the rules, probably gained no advantage (there is no indication it was a rainy day with muddy conditions), and that there was no way for the committee to know how many other players might have made the same mistake. So far, so good.
But when officials met with players to advise them of the decision, controversy erupted. Some players threatened to withdraw from the tournament if the penalties were rescinded. Others said they would withdraw if the penalties were enforced. Early Friday morning, the KLPGA met with the players again and decided to cancel all the first-round scores and shorten the event to 54 holes. It issued a statement apologizing to players, fans, and sponsors.
What could tournament officials have done differently (other than checking the settings of the mower blades) to avoid such a drastic action? Perhaps adhere firmly to its initial decision to rescind penalties, despite player opposition. The committee was in a somewhat murky area on this point, however. Rules Decision 33-7 clarifies that, while the committee has discretion to waive the disqualification penalty (this was the issue with Woods at the 2013 Masters), any penalty less than disqualification may not be waived or modified.
Nevertheless, rules officials at the USGA, the New England PGA, and the MGA told NEGM that the committee has broad discretion to devise equitable remedies in such situations. Ron Green, Director of Rules & Competition for the NEPGA, explained that the first thing he would do is assess the conditions on the course, consult with as many players as possible, and determine if action can be taken (marking the perimeters of the greens) to mitigate the problem. If it was clear the players gained no advantage, Green suggested that rescinding the penalties might have been the best solution. “It sounds like they tried to do what made sense,” he noted.
Jesse Menachem, Executive Director of the MGA, concurred with Green – his first impulse would be to paint dots to demarcate the edges of the problematic greens. (Green noted that when running a tournament he tries to thoroughly examine the course before to start of play to identify any such issues.) Menachem emphasized that in such an uncertain situation it is best to err on the side of player judgment. He, like Green, would be very reluctant to cancel all scores in a round.
From a player’s perspective, whether the action taken by the KLPGA was supportable might depend on whether you shot a 66 or a 75 in the first round. It was a rules fiasco that could have been averted by a thorough inspection of the course before play, and could have been mitigated by adhering to the committee’s initial decision to rescind penalties. Canceling a round was probably the worst option. Just ask the head rules official who is now watching tournaments on television.