It was the rules row that divided golf. On the one hand, some felt Lexi Thompson only had herself to blame for being hit with a four-shot penalty in the ANA Inspiration, the opening women’s major of the season, 12 months ago. On the other, some thought her punishment for wrongly replacing a marked ball was too severe as it cost her a second title triumph at Mission Hills Country Club in California.
The fact that incident has led to changes in the Rules of Golf would suggest the game’s two governing bodies, the R&A and USGA, were in the latter camp, yet there can still be no denying that Thompson acted carelessly in the first place and that’s probably the reason she is still being haunted by the whole episode.
“That night was extremely rough,” said the world No 2 as she prepared for her bid for redemption in this year’s event, having been paired with the rejuvenated Michelle Wie in the opening two rounds at Rancho Mirage. “I was screaming, crying. You know, I’ve re-lived it for a while. I had nightmares about it. You know, I still occasionally do.”
Thompson was leading by three shots during the final round when she was informed by tournament officials she was being penalised for an incident which took place the previous day. Spotted and subsequently called in by an armchair fan, the American was deemed to have incorrectly replaced her ball on the 17th green in the third round and was hit with a two-shot penalty for that infringement plus two more for signing for an incorrect scorecard.
In one fell swoop, she went from holding a handy cushion to being one off the lead and, in the circumstances, did remarkably well to birdie the 18th to force a play-off, which she subsequently lost to Korea’s So Yeon Ryu. At the Masters the following week, Phil Mickelson was among the players to hit out strongly at Thompson’s punishment.
“I had to dig really deep,” admitted Thompson of her immediate reaction to being told of the penalty. “Honestly, the next tee shot I was crying. Basically, every tee shot there was water in my eyes. But the fans were the only reason why I finished the way I did. I heard them chanting my name on every shot, every tee. I heard them on the green chanting my name, and I was like, ‘I have to finish strong for them’.”
With Scot Kevin McAlpine on her bag, Thompson bounced back from the bitter disappointment to win the Kingsmill Championship a few weeks later and, despite being constantly reminded of the incident, the 23-year-old went on to have a remarkably successful 2017 campaign, which included her being on a winning Solheim Cup team in Des Moines.
“It’s been rough, but you know the fans were behind me the weeks after, the months after,” said Thompson in reflective mode. “I stayed off social media after that because media was blowing it up and making me feel terrible. So I just tried not to pay attention to any of that. I just hung out with my family, and just kind of stayed to myself, honestly, and just had to let it go and let time pass.”
Thompson’s trial by TV evidence was the final straw for the R&A and USGA following a string of incidents being called in by viewers. Such interventions have now been abolished by the game’s ruling bodies, with the extra penalty for signing an incorrect scorecard having also eliminated for players who signed a card believing it was correct.
“I don’t look at myself that I changed the rule,” said Thompson of what has happened in the past 12 months and been widely welcomed. “I’m just happy that the rule changed so nobody else can be put through what I was put through last year.”
Wie, the 2014 US Women’s Open champion, returned to winning ways in March when landing the HSBC Women’s World Championship in Singapore. The 28-year-old has overcome a number of injury problems to get her career moving in the right direction again and admits that she has been inspired recently by Tiger Woods.
It wasn’t that long ago that 14-time major winner Woods was hinting that his career may have been under threat due to all his recent back surgeries, yet he is now heading into next week’s Masters as the title favourite after producing three eye-catching performances in a row in the build up to the opening men’s major of the year.
“Just seeing what he’s gone through with his injuries,” said Wie. “And then just seeing what his club-head speed is right now and everything, seeing how he’s hitting the ball and how he was coming back, it’s truly inspiring and motivating. It’s really cool to watch.”
Catriona Matthew, the sole Scot in the field, has been paired with Juli Inkster for the opening two rounds, meaning the two captains will get to have an early chat about the 2019 Solheim Cup at Gleneagles.
Other British players at Rancho Mirage include 54-year-old Laura Davies, who rolled back the years to finish second in a recent LPGA event, and Charley Hull and Georgia Hall. New LPGA card holder Gemma Dryburgh has missed out.