Friday 15 November 2019

Tiger Woods fumes as tearful Lexi Thompson denied major victory after TV viewer spots rules violation

Lexi Thompson reacts following her loss in playoff against So Yeon Ryu during the final round of the ANA Inspiration golf tournament at Mission Hills
Lexi Thompson reacts following her loss in playoff against So Yeon Ryu during the final round of the ANA Inspiration golf tournament at Mission Hills

James Corrigan

Tiger Woods joined social media’s furious reaction to the controversial conclusion of the first female major of the season on Sunday night, as Lexi Thompson was hit with a retrospective four-shot penalty spotted by a TV viewer almost 24 hours later, which ultimately cost her the ANA Inspiration championship.

Thompson was two ahead after completing the 12th hole at the Mission Hills Country Club in Palm Springs, California when she was approached by two rules officials. They told her what those watching on television already knew. That an unnamed person had emailed in during the final round to say that Thomson had broken the rules during Saturday’s third round.

It was a full day on from when the infraction had occurred but that only meant the penalty would be even more severe. Thompson had missed a birdie putt on the 17th green, leaving it about two feet short. The 22-year-old American appeared about to finish it off, but stopped and decided to mark it. Replays showed that when replacing the ball she obviously did so in the wrong place, if only a centimetre from its original position.

However, when the referees watched it back on Sunday after being alerted, there would inevitably only be one verdict. A two-shot-shot penalty for the offence and a two-shot penalty for signing for a wrong score.

Thompson’s reaction when being informed as she walked towards the 13th tee, was naturally one of incredulity. “Is this a joke?” she asked. When realising it was deadly serious, the tears started to flow. From being two ahead of her playing partner, Sweden’s Suzann Pettersen, she now found herself two behind.

Yet somehow Thompson, still crying, managed to birdie the 13th and then birdie the 15th and with Pettersen seemingly more affected in a playing sense than the crestfallen world no 4, Thompson took the lead again.

Read more: Comment - It's time for golf to gag eagle-eyed TV viewers and second guessers

However, up ahead the Korean So Yeon Ryu was finishing off on 14-under, meaning Thompson needed to birdie the last for a play-off.

Thompson did so, after missing a makeable eagle putt from 20 feet, with the crowd chanting “Lexi, Lexi”. By then, Woods had signalled his support by tweeting: “Viewers at home should not be officials wearing stripes. Let's go ‪@Lexi, win this thing anyway.’

In the event, a still emotional Thompson could only par the first play-off hole, as Ryu birdied. And as the Korean celebrated with the traditional leap into Poppy’s Pond by the side of the 18th, the sport began one of its depressingly familiar inquests.

During the final round of last year’s US Open, Dustin Johnson was told he might be subject to a penalty at the end because of his ball moving on the green, meaning that nobody on the course, including Johnson, knew exactly where they stood on the leaderboard.

Eventually Johnson was hit with a two-shot penalty, but it did not matter as the US big-hitter had compiled a big enough advantage to win anyway. This situation felt much worse and way more farcical.

There can be no doubt Thompson broke the rules and looking back at the tapes one does wonder if the ball did roll into a pitch mark and question why Thompson paused before deciding to mark it.  However, it was the timing which grated.

The third round was long over when the penalty was called, but still the officials were obliged to act. Under the old rules, Thompson would have been disqualified for signing an incorrect card. Under the proposed rules set to be introduced in January 2019, she will only have been hit by a two-shot sanction and may still have won.

For her part, Thompson took it stoically thanking the galleries for their support. "It's great to have the fan base that I do," Thompson said. "They got me through the whole round. It's unfortunate what happened. I did not mean that at all. I didn't realise I did that [improperly replaced her ball]. I fought strong through the finish and it was great to see the fans behind me."

It all seemed extremely hard on Ryu, especially with the moral majority saying the “proper” winner had been denied - even though Thompson had  plainly infringed.

''I just cannot believe the situation,'' Ryu said. ''I didn't even check the leaderboard. I thought Lexi played really, really well. I didn't expect what happened to Lexi. It's a very unfortunate situation. I didn't expect it. I thought I'm well behind, so all I wanted to do was play my game.''

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