Tour Confidential: The latest rules controversy and previewing the Masters

April 2, 2017

Every Sunday night, conducts an e-mail roundtable with writers from Sports Illustrated and GOLF Magazine. Check in every week for the unfiltered opinions of our writers and editors and join the conversation by tweeting us @golf_com.

1. An unthinkable rules fiasco yet again took center stage at a major championship. In the final round of the ANA Inspiration, then-leader-by-two Lexi Thompson was alerted between the 12th and 13th holes that she had been assessed a four-stroke penalty for improperly placing her ball on the 17th green — on Saturday — and then signing an incorrect scorecard. (LPGA officials were alerted of the potential infraction by a viewer but not until Sunday afternoon.) Battling her emotions and occasionally fighting off tears, Thompson managed three birdies in the final six holes of regulation to get into a playoff with So Yeon Ryu, but ultimately came up short, losing the playoff on the first hole. You couldn’t possibly feel anything but gutted for Thompson, but the replay did clearly show that she did not place her ball back in its original spot. Where do you come down on what unfolded Sunday?

Alan Shipnuck, senior writer, Sports Illustrated (@AlanShipnuck): Well, it turned a potential blowout into must-see TV and set Twitter on fire so maybe it was the best thing that could’ve happened to the tournament. And Lexi played and comported herself like a champ, so this won’t break her. But clearly this was the kind of cockup that hurts golf’s reputation with the masses. I think it’s wrong to come back the next day and assess a penalty; like Cinderella, when the clock strikes midnight, that should end the tomfoolery. And how do you ding Lexi for signing an incorrect scorecard when it was correct at the time she signed it? Give her the two-stroke penalty for mis-marking her ball, if you must, but four strokes was cruel and unusual punishment.

Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: The rules of golf don’t exist to appease the masses. They exist to create the exact same playing conditions for everybody in the field. A simple and essential part of the game is that when you mark your ball you put it back precisely where it was. Players—I’m not saying a thing about Lexi here—have reasons to WANT to put the ball in a different position, to avoid an old ball mark, a spike mark, something of that nature. But they don’t. They put the ball back exactly where it was. And Lexi didn’t do that, so that’s two shots. She then signed an incorrect card. If she didn’t get the extra two shots—and previously it would have been a DQ—it would be a step down a path by which the atmosphere surrounding golf was changed. More like, I did something wrong, will I get away with it? That is not the code of golf, at all. The code of golfers should be, Whatever somebody—anybody—can do to help me turn in a more accurate scorecard, I welcome it. Even if it is a TV viewer. Even if it is after the card has been signed.

MORE: Tiger, pros react to Lexi controversy

Josh Sens, contributing writer, GOLF (@JoshSens): From the video replay, it looks like a violation. And I’d have no problem with Lexi being slapped with a two-stroke penalty if a fellow player or a rules official had called her on it. But a viewer call in that results in a penalty the following day? Enough with the couch potato whistle blowers. Let the rules of the game—and the code of golf that Michael refers to above—be enforced by the players and the officials on hand. And let them be enforced in a timely way, so we don’t have the absurdity of a player signing for an incorrect scorecard that she had no reason to know was incorrect. Maybe it’s just my general fatigue with today’s Facebook culture, where everyone feels entitled to have a voice in everything. But granting every Tom, Dick and Harry the power of tournament officialdom opens up a big can of ugly worms, and causes more problems than it solves.

John Wood, caddie for Matt Kuchar (@johnwould): This is a strange one. I am adamantly against anyone calling into a tournament and reporting a rules violation. It should all be handled on site, by the players, the rules officials, and even TV personnel. If they see something and call it in real time, as it happens, then I’ve got no problem with it. That being said, Lexi’s mark and re-mark was very curious. The putt practically seemed a gimme, and yet it was obvious and plain the ball was placed in a different position than where it originally lay. I just don’t get it. In a sense, you could almost understand something like this happening if someone marks, waits, walks around, reads the putt, waits for others to finish, and then returns to their mark to replace their ball. But this wasn’t that. This was mark, lift, and replace in practically one motion, with no time elapsing. Like I said, there’s got to be more to this. But again, if it’s not caught immediately and on site, and the cards are signed and the round deemed official, then it’s over. No penalty should be assessed after the fact like this.

Sean Zak, associate editor, (@Sean_Zak): Lexi was just one of a minority group of players who made the TV broadcast Saturday, so she became a victim of her own success. Basement-dwelling whistleblowers aside, she made a mistake. The rule that needs changing is the scorecard signing clause. At the time, Thompson signed a scorecard that accurately reflected what her score was AT that time. If we must penalize her—22 hours later!—don’t additionally penalize her for acting accordingly in the moment.

Jeff Ritter, digital development editor, Sports Illustrated Golf Group (@Jeff_Ritter): Lexi clearly blundered while remarking her ball, but the idea that a couch commander can call it in a day later just doesn’t compute. It’s not fair to the “field” when only a few players in the tournament appear on television and are more susceptible to scrutiny. It’s a rule that’s currently under review, and the proposed change for 2019 would eliminate “later evidence,” like video replay, from factoring into penalties. So, help is on the way, but it doesn’t help Lexi.

2. Masters week is finally here, so we’re going all green the rest of the way. What’s the biggest storyline of the week? No wavering. Pick just one.

Shipnuck: Can Dustin Johnson turn this ongoing hot streak into something Tigeresque? He’s already playing dominant golf. If DJ takes this jacket, look out, we could be witnessing something epic.

Shane Bacon, golf analyst, Fox Sports (@shanebacon): It’ll be Rory until he complete the Grand Slam. DJ’s run has been historic, but nobody can add to their legacy like McIlroy can with a green jacket on Sunday.

Sens: With two good ones already taken, I’ll go with Spieth, the coulda-woulda-shoulda-been two-time defending champ. How will he perform with—as he acknowledged—last year’s collapse still weighing heavily on his mind?

Ritter: These are all winners. I’ll take the Mickelson story next. He hasn’t done much this year, but we know Augusta gives him extra juice. If he plays his way into it, he’ll grab all the headlines while chasing a fourth green jacket.

Zak: As for storylines, methinks the career Grand Slam outweighs DJ’s impressive run. After all, it’s only the most impressive run this side of Jason Day 11 months ago. Rory earns a completely different rank within this game once he wins a Masters.

Bamberger: Zazeth, among others, speaketh for me.

Wood: For me, it’s DJ. Coming in as No. 1 and playing quite a bit better than everyone else of late brings a new pressure. I think DJ will handle it well, but coming in as the heavy favorite and winning for me would put a big exclamation point on his ranking.

3. Fuzzy Zoeller, in 1979, was the last player to win in his first trip to Augusta National. There’s a strong lineup of first-timers in the field this year, and it’s got an international feel to it. Who is most likely to contend among these four rookies: Adam Hadwin of Canada; Alex Noren of Sweden; Thomas Pieters of Belgium; or Jon Rahm of Spain?

Shipnuck: Rahm. He’s got the combination of power and touch that Augusta National rewards and he’s the hottest of the bunch, including another strong showing in Houston.

Bacon: Rahm is the second-best player in the world right now behind DJ. Sure, it might be his first time around, but that hasn’t halted his assault on top 5s and top 10s this season.

Sens: Rahm was my Masters pick more than a month ago and he only looks like a more obvious one now. In addition to the power, he has shown a tidy short game and a kind of comfort in big moments that belies his age.

Ritter: Rahm not only has the game, but a fearlessness and aggressiveness in how he manages his way around a course. That style could bite him at Augusta, but of the first-timers, he’s the guy.

Bamberger: Rahm. Long, aggressive, good lag putter. Having said that, I think he has little chance. Not enough around-the-green finesse shots for a weekend at Augusta, not yet.

Zak: I’ve tried talking myself into an answer other than Rahm. There is no other answer. His game, demeanor, etc. all makes more sense than any other first-timer. Would you trust any of the other three with the lead on Sunday? Rahm’s tee-to-green game has been so good that, if he putts well, he will undoubtedly be high on the leaderboard.

Wood: I’ll make it unanimous, and it’s got nothing to do with how long he is or how good a putter he is or his fearlessness — it has everything to do with him standing on the first tee on Thursday thinking he can win. He will definitely not place himself in the “I’m just happy to be here” camp.

4. The Masters almost always produces a surprise contender, a player who goes low on Thursday and hangs around the top of the leaderboard for the rest of the week. Using the criteria that he has to be outside the top 50 in the World Ranking, name your darkhorse.

Shipnuck: Pat Perez. ANGC is the quintessential second-shot course and Perez is one of the best iron players in the game. He’s been playing with a ton of confidence for months and now, at age 41 and back in the Masters for the first time since ‘09, he’s gonna be determined to make the most of the opportunity.

Bacon: You can’t pick Lee Westwood (53rd in the world) because he has three top-threes at the Masters over his last seven starts at Augusta, so I’ll go with Kevin Na. I could see Na tossing up a random 66 like he did on Friday in 2015 and hang around the top 10 for the weekend.

Sens: Jim Furyk’s hardly a no-name but he’s now just outside the top 50 and, after missing last year’s Masters, he should be itching to get back out there. I’ll take him in an event that rewards experience more than overwhelming power.

Ritter: Jhonattan Vegas. Gut call. Just like the way he’s playing this year, his standing as a big hitter and his ability draw the ball. This is only his second Masters, but it feels like a spot where JV could make some noise.

Bamberger: Fred. Swing does not quit. Back does, but swing doesn’t. Give the old man a good putting week and let’s see what happens.

Zak: Charley Hoffman has a sneaky-great record at this course. For someone who has never ascended to the top 30 in the World Ranking, Hoffman has placed in the top 30 in all three of his appearances at the Masters. In other words, he’s due to miss the cut.

Wood: I’m going to throw my hat in the ring for Gary Woodland. I know he’ll be playing with a heavy heart but his game has been extremely solid all year long. He will be playing with golf in firm perspective when it comes to his real life, and that can help. I know I’ll be pulling for him.

5. It’s been almost 44 years since Johnny Miller shot his record 63 in a major, at the 1973 U.S. Open at Oakmont. The score has been matched 29 times, but only twice at Augusta National, by Nick Price in 1986 and Greg Norman in 1996. Will anyone threaten 62 this week? If not, what will the low 18-hole score be?

Shipnuck: There’s supposed to be big rains on Monday and Wednesday night into Thursday, so that makes it more likely. A firm, fast, fiery Augusta National is still a monster but if the greens are softer and slower it’s gettable. On the other hand, high winds are forecast for the first two rounds, which more than negates the moisture. So, I’m gonna say no 62s this week, but should see some 65s on the weekend.

Bacon: I’ll say 64. Considering the most talented players in the world are also peaking at the perfect time, someone is going to make a couple of eagles and post a near-record score.

Ritter: The forecast sets up to create a shootout on the weekend, and we already know where the Sunday pins will be. It would be a big upset for a 62 to drop at Augusta before a British Open or a PGA, but maybe….

Bamberger: I just can’t see it, a 62 at Augusta National. I can easily imagine a third 63 being carded this week.

Sens: If the forecast holds, I like a 65 or two over the weekend. To be more specific, I like a 65 by Louis Oosthuizen and another by Rory, both playing from back in the pack. Came to me in a vision. Neither will catch Rahm. You can bet your kids’ college fund on it. Swear.

Zak: Sounds like everyone thinks 65 or better is very possible, but I’ll lean toward the course holding strong for the fifth straight year. Spieth’s magical Thursday 64 in 2015 is the only round in the past four Masters to beat 66. There are just too many really difficult par-4s out there.

Wood: Everyone in the field will shoot 62, and then keep playing at least one more hole. I’m saying low score for the week is 66, by someone on Sunday to win. Thursday and Friday look very cool, with Thursday being very windy. Saturday looks a little better, but hole locations on Saturday tend to be a bit more difficult, which leads us to a Sunday back-nine charge. We know where all the pins will be, most of them very getable, and someone will shoot the low round of the week on Sunday to win.

6. Jack Nicklaus tied for sixth in 1998, at the age of 58, but that was before Augusta National was Tiger-proofed. Is it asking too much to expect former champions Fred Couples (57), Bernhard Langer (59) and/or Vijay Singh (54) to contend?

Ritter: Contend? Sure. It’s always fun to see a graybeard on the board, and I like Langer’s chances the best. But win? Nah. The course is too long, and there are too many young guys at the top of their games.

Shipnuck: Unlike these three guys, Big Jack never lost his nerve on the greens. Freddy and Veej still hit it long enough to contend, but given their frayed nerve endings there’s no way they can shake in enough putts to have a legit chance to win.

Bacon: Considering age might be near the bottom on the list of things that seem to bother Bernhard Langer, I could see the 59-year-old having another solid week at Augusta National. It’s easy to look at his T8 in 2014, his first top 10 at the Masters in a decade, but the guy continues to finish in the top 25 against players 35 years his junior. He’s just too darn talented and too knowledgeable about the golf course to struggle.

Sens: Shane, What WOULD be on the list of things that bother Langer? Hard to think of one golf-related. Maybe loud hip-hop music on the first tee? Of the Centrum Silver-takers in the field, Langer is the only one I could see being in the mix on Sunday. Still crazy good after all these years.

Bamberger: See above.

Wood: I can see Fred or Bernhard playing well, but contend? Not throughout the week.

Zak: I don’t even consider Langer an old man anymore. He’s a cyborg. Last year, I walked along with him and Ryan Moore on Wednesday as everyone was focused on the Par-3 Contest. He was 25 yards longer than Moore multiple times off the tee. Sure, he needs to ball-strike his way to glory, but isn’t that what a cyborg would do? See: Stenson, Troon ’16.

7. Step up to the window and give us your win, place and show picks, along with a winning score.

Shipnuck: I’m gonna cite Occam’s razor here – sometimes the most obvious choice is the correct one: 1. Dustin Johnson (-13); 2. Phil; 3. Jordan Spieth.

Bacon: I picked Phil to win before the season started and while my confidence dipped after his showing this weekend in Houston, I could still see Lefty pulling out some magic, and leaning on a revived putter, to get No. 4. I’ll say Rory and Paul Casey round out the top-three.

Ritter: Hideki Matsuyama makes history as Asia’s first to win a green jacket, finishing 15 under to beat Justin Rose by two and DJ by three.

Sens: First-timer John Rahm becomes the third Spaniard to win the Masters at nine under for the week, breaking the heart of his countryman and second-place finisher Sergio Garcia. Spieth finishes third because he’s constitutionally incapable of finishing much lower at Augusta. The little known addendum to Occam’s razor is that no PGA Tour player with a beard is allowed to win four consecutive events, so this won’t be DJ’s week.

Bamberger: Rory, King Louie, Bubba.

Zak: Look at Shipnuck dropping some philosophy stones on us. Mickelson has been scoring incredibly well considering his balky driver. I’ll join Bacon on the Mickelson (12 under) train. Making all our dreams come true, McIlroy pushes him to that deep number, but falls short. Berger storms up the leaderboard on Sunday for a backdoor top three, if such a thing exists.

Wood: 1. Kuchar. 2. Mickelson. 3. Spieth. And I’ll say 11 under wins it.

8. Tiger Woods will miss his third Masters in the last four years. It’s a fair question to ask: Have we seen the last of him?

Bamberger: No. He’s a golfer. He’s 41. When we say done, are we talking about the next 10 or 15 years? I think he will address the issues in his life and return to golf sometime in the next five years. Life, if you’re lucky, is long, fast though it goes.

Shipnuck: I can see him taking a year off and then coming back and playing a few events in a mostly ceremonial way. But as an actual contender, he’s done.

Bacon: This year was his chance to really give it a serious go. That lasted three rounds and that was the last we will see of Tiger really, honestly trying to give it a go.

Sens: We’ll see him again. Sadly, though, I agree: we won’t see him seriously contend in a big one again.

Ritter: He’ll continue playing in it, but this was his last serious run at coming all the way back.

Zak: Tiger isn’t done, though a growing portion of me wants him to be. As a collection of golf fans, we’ve never wanted him to play more than we do right now. I think he feels that.