Lexi Thompson, finality, and fairness

The United States Golf Association is currently engaged in an ongoing conversation about “modernizing” the Rules of Golf, with several important changes being proposed.  That project is not set to take full effect until 2019.  But those changes cannot come soon enough.  And what happened Sunday in Rancho Mirage proves why.

Lexi Thompson led by two strokes in the final round of the ANA Inspiration (for folks like me, this will always be the Dinah Shore event), a major tournament on the LPGA Tour, played at beautiful Mission Hills.  Playing her back nine, she is approached by LPGA rules officials who inform her that she is being assessed a 4-stroke penalty for playing her ball from the wrong position and for signing an incorrect scorecard . . . the previous day.  An intrepid viewer sent an email to the tournament committee claiming that Thompson, during Saturday’s round, failed to place her ball back on the green in the exact location that she had marked it.  That is a rules violation, as every golfer knows. And it cost her two strokes.  She was then assessed another two-stroke penalty for signing an incorrect scorecard (because her score for that hole did not include the two-stroke penalty for playing from the wrong position).  Consequently, a two-stroke lead on Sunday became a two-stroke deficit.  To her credit, she handled to matter with grace (and some obvious disbelief), battling back to tie for the lead.  She later missed an eagle putt on 18, sending the tournament into extra holes.  She lost in the playoff by one shot.  Golfweek story here.

The question is not whether Thompson violated the rule.  The video evidence shows rather clearly that she did, albeit unintentionally.  The question is whether the rules officials should have enforced this violation on Sunday, during the final round.

The obviously correct answer, from an official perspective, is yes, they should have.  The argument is this: the tournament was still ongoing, and once the officials learned of the violation — not inconclusive by any means — they had an obligation, in fairness to all competitors, to enforce the penalty.  See Rule 33-1.b.  Now here’s why that obviously correct answer is subject to question.

Consider the law’s principle of collateral estoppel, roughly, the idea that once an issue is decided in litigation, a party is precluded from raising it again.  A similar, or analogous, principle seems to apply in Thompson’s case. While it is tempting to say that matters of this kind are reviewable until a tournament is closed — consistent with existing Rule 33-1.b. — this ignores the structure of golf tournaments, which are divided into distinct rounds.  Each round, particularly the third and final rounds, has implications for the next.  A player does not submit a scorecard for the entire 72-hole event at once. Rather, she submits a scorecard at the close of each round.  Just as a tournament is closed after 72 holes and a winner is crowned, so, too, does each round close after all players have completed those 18 holes, submitted their cards, and had their scores posted.

A tournament committee should be precluded (estopped, even) from altering or modifying the scores once all play has been completed in a given round.  Once a player’s card has been submitted by his scorekeeper, attested by the player, accepted by the tournament committee, and then posted, this constitutes a final determination — and an implicit agreement between the tournament committee and the player — that the player’s score is accurate.  If there is any question about the accuracy of a player’s score, the tournament officials need not post the player’s score, and the player certainly should not sign and submit her card if questions about her score remain.  But once the card is accepted and the score is posted, the tournament committee is now precluded from essentially relitigating the issue of the correctness of a player’s score.  The player, by this point, has a right to rely on the acceptance of the card and the posting of her score, which ought to be treated as a final determination.

The rationale for this?  Finality and fairness.  First, finality.  As in law, golf tournaments, and each round thereof, benefit from finality.  The finality of scores in a given round (say, the third round of a 72-hole tournament) determines the pairings for the next round; determines which players hold which positions on the leaderboard; and determines a player’s strategy for the final round.  By upsetting scores in the way that the LPGA did yesterday, the rules officials upset the finality of scoring from the previous round and create both strategic and psychological consequences for many other competitors, not just the player who is assessed the penalty.  That would not happen if players could rely on the finality interest created by acceptance of their cards and posting of their scores.

This leads to, and overlaps with, the fairness rationale.  While it seems that fairness might dictate imposing the penalty, arguably, under these circumstances, fairness might actually cut the other way.  It is arguably unfair to tell a player on Saturday evening that her card has been accepted as correct and that her score has been posted, only to tell her on Sunday that, it turns out, that determination was wrong after all.  Otherwise, players must be forced to go into each new round not certain that their score from the previous round will hold up.  Why, then, submit a scorecard to the tournament committee at the close of each round?  Why post Saturday’s scores?  Fairness to all competitors requires not just an abiding conviction that the rules are being followed, but also an abiding conviction that they can rely upon representations made to them by the folks who run the tournament.

I suppose these rationales may have less force if there is evidence that a player has deliberately violated a rule to gain a competitive advantage.  But there is no such evidence in Thompson’s case.  The ball may have been misplaced, but by all indications, doing so was unintentional, and it gave her no advantage over her competitors. And, to be sure, the tournament committee was placed in an untenable position here — the committee had no reason to know of the violation when they posted the Saturday scores, and no one believes that informing Thompson of the penalty was enjoyable work.  And surely no one wants the winner of a tournament to do so with the benefit of a rules violation that would have affected her score.  But the rationale for modifying a score on Sunday is no different than the rationale for modifying a score on Monday, or Tuesday.  If we can create a rule for protecting the integrity of a player’s score after the tournament has closed, surely we can create a similar rule for protecting the integrity of a player’s score after each round. And doing so might also have the added advantage of discouraging armchair officiating from television viewers.

Perhaps the USGA’s modernization effort would not address this or many other controversies arising under the often complex, and not always sensible, Rules of Golf.  Still, golf’s governing body should consider ways to mitigate the problem created by yesterday’s events — a player being interrupted while leading a major championship to be informed of a penalty imposed for an unintentional mistake on the previous day, after her scorecard had been accepted and her score posted, and that could not possibly have given her an unfair advantage.  Perhaps the law, as it often does in sports, could offer some guidance.

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