AUGUSTA, Ga. — The Masters is a singular event, inexorably tied to this week in April and this place in the South, with signatures — Magnolia Lane, pimento cheese sandwiches, green jackets and Amen Corner — that distinguish it annually and eternally. The members of Augusta National Golf Club refuse to allow it to be lumped in with other golf tournaments, never mind other sporting events. It must stand alone.
And yet, at issue as the 81st edition of the Masters tees off Thursday, is a golf ball on a putting green five days and 2,250 miles removed from here. The ball, marked by Lexi Thompson and then replaced at an ever-so-slightly different spot, is relevant to the tournament here because it remains the dominant story line entering the sport’s most important week.
What happened to Thompson is, by now, well-known: When a television viewer emailed regarding the infraction from the third round of the ANA Inspiration, the LPGA’s first major of the season, Thompson was penalized two strokes for the violation, then two more strokes for signing an incorrect scorecard — a scorecard she couldn’t have known was incorrect, because her error wasn’t reviewed until Sunday, when she was already in the midst of her final round. She was informed of the situation — a total of four strokes lost — with six holes remaining.
[Svrluga: For Jordan Spieth, Augusta National’s No. 12 isn’t just another par 3]
The issue, which cost Thompson the tournament and left her in tears, hangs over the Masters because it gets at golf’s core, which combines minutia with honor and integrity in a stew that can be both instructive and baffling. Added to that is the unique willingness of the people who run this sport to accept — and, by extension, encourage — participation from anonymous television viewers in the officiating of the sport even, oddly, after the fact.
“I think it should be reversed,” three-time Masters champion Phil Mickelson said flatly. “I think that she should be given the trophy.”
Start with that portion of golf’s issue: the time frame. This issue isn’t just about Thompson, not just about the LPGA Tour. We know, in recent history, that it pertains to the Masters as well.
In the second round of the 2013 event here, Tiger Woods played a shot into the 15th green at Augusta National. It was a splendid wedge, aimed directly at the flag — so directly that the ball clanked off the pin and back into the water hazard in front of the green.
This bit of misfortune was compounded when, in a post-round interview, Woods said he had played his ensuing drop from a spot two yards back of the spot of his original shot. This was improper, and by the rules, he should have been penalized.
But when Woods left the course that night, he didn’t realize that. Only when a former PGA Tour official, watching at his home, sent a text to an on-site official did the wheels start to turn at Augusta. That resulted in Woods being summoned to the course at 8 a.m. the next morning, when it was determined he would be assessed a two-shot penalty — but not be disqualified.
The feeling among players regarding the circumstances that applied to both Woods and Thompson is simple: What’s to prevent a viewer this coming Sunday night from messaging tournament officials about an infraction during the final round? Could a newly crowned Masters champ be forced to return his green jacket Monday?
“My opinion on that kind of stuff is that once the round is over and the scorecard is signed, the day is over,” said none other than Jack Nicklaus, six-time Masters champion. “That’s my opinion. That isn’t necessarily what it is.”
The reason for such potential delays, even in a sport in which officials are scattered across the field of play, is because of television. What isn’t noticed in real time by someone on site can be analyzed with HD clarity by others, whether they’re affiliated with the sport or not. So it was with personal familiarity with such a situation that Woods tweeted Sunday: “Viewers at home should not be officials wearing stripes.”
“They don’t need to be calling in and officiating us,” four-time major winner Rory McIlroy said here.
[Perspective: Lexi Thompson fiasco shows golf honors absolutism over common sense]
Masters officials said Wednesday they won’t immediately prohibit television viewers from participating in the governance of the tournament. “We hope very much that something appropriate, an appropriate solution to this, would be reached,” Fred Ridley, the chairman of the rules committee, said. But as the players prepare for competition Thursday, they are waiting for others to act. And they’re stewing.
“There’s no other sport where people can call or email in or contact officials regarding an issue,” Rickie Fowler said. “. . . You look at someone like Tiger, who has spent his entire career — obviously every shot, every movement, has been on camera. If we go back and look at video of all kinds of players or things through the years, you probably can find rules infractions.”
Now here’s where this discussion gets dicey. No sport reveres its rules like golf. In football, pass interference seems to be one massive gray area. In baseball, the existence of the “neighborhood play” — in which an infielder needs only be in the area of second base while recording a forceout on an attempted double play — was an accepted part of the game for years.
In contrast, golf expects precision.
“I was very careful how I marked the ball,” Nicklaus said.
Thompson was not. The problem: In not replacing her ball in the precise spot in which it was originally marked, she left at least the impression that she was trying to gain an advantage — even on an 18-inch putt. Such an advantage could include trying to avoid a spike mark or an indentation in the green. Don’t think that evaded discussion among players.
“I know a number of guys on tour that are loose with how they mark the ball and have not been called on it,” Mickelson said. “I mean, they will move the ball two, three inches in front of their mark, and this is an intentional way to get out of any type of impression and so forth. And I think that kind of stuff needs to stop.”
This isn’t corking a bat or deflating footballs. But in golf, it is labeled as cheating. And it is anathema — indeed, almost inconceivable — to those who run the game.
“I think golf remains a sport of great integrity,” Augusta National Chairman Billy Payne said Wednesday.
That it may. But as the sport’s most distinctive event begins, it also remains a sport of potentially great confusion.