Only the LPGA could have shot itself in the foot so spectacularly, in the course of trying to do the right thing.
Slow play, the scourge of modern golf, is the legacy of Jack Nicklaus and of his 21st-century successors who are all so good that even the tiniest differentiators become enormously important. The USGA Rules of Golf (Rule 6 – 7) provide for penalties for slow play, but leave the definition of slow play to “the Committee,” which, in the case of LPGA tournaments, means the Ladies’ Tour itself. The LPGA definitions and procedures go into great detail but do allow for some discretion (for an “extraordinary circumstance”)and for an appeals process, and indicate that the LPGA “will make an effort to inform the individual player being timed.” The rule has only rarely been invoked beyond the initial stage of giving a warning to a particular “group” (a twosome or threesome).
The Morgan Pressel episode appears to have involved good intentions but poor judgment on the part of the LPGA. As the golf world knows, Ms. Pressel, a popular and highly-ranked LPGA tour pro, was playing in the semi-final match of the only LPGA event (the Sybase Match Play Championship) that is conducted entirely at match play. Her match, and the other semifinal match, made up the only golf being played on the site – indeed, her match was the 2nd of the 2 matches, meaning there was no one behind her group and thus no one was being “held up” in any way. Ms. Pressel’s opponent, Azahara Munoz (who went on to win in the finals), is a notoriously slow player whose agonizingly complex set of pre-shot gyrations and mannerisms makes the pre-shot routine of the notorious Kevin Na of the men’s tour seem elegant by comparison. Ms. Pressel, like most pros of either gender, is not exactly brisk either, but on this given day, Ms. Munoz, not Ms. Pressel, was clearly the problem, and the tour officials acted on the problem by warning both players to speed things up. Unfortunately for Ms. Pressel, once the twosome was warned, that put each of its members “on the clock,” regardless of their relative guilt or innocence in the matter, and Ms. Pressel soon became the first and only victim of the rule: on the very next hole, Ms. Pressel, about to strike her shot, noticed a significant change of speed or direction of the wind and halted her routine to consult her caddie and change clubs in order to address the change of circumstance, thus significantly increasing the time it took her to play the hole. At the conclusion of the hole, which Ms. Pressel had won (increasing her lead from 2-up to 3-up), the official invoked the slow-play rule against only Ms. Pressel and penalized her with loss of the hole – in effect, the ruling cost her two holes because she dropped from 3-up to 1-up. Ms. Pressel objected and apparently was told, in effect, to suck it up and move on. (While Ms. Pressel’s subsequent reactions to the episode may have been somewhat less than olympian, they were understandable and, in any event, beside the point.)
- the USGA’s slow-play rule, as applied to match play, is ridiculously harsh, as it amounts, in effect, to a 2-hole penalty, one that, as confirmed by the outcome in this match, is quite likely to ensure that the victim will lose the match.
- putting an entire group “on the clock” can, in many cases, penalize the innocent along with – or rather than – the guilty.
- as our entire society is beginning to learn, one cannot write a perfect rule to thoroughly address every possible situation. Unless rules are more general, and applied with reasonable discretion, they often yield unfair or inappropriate results.
- The slow-play rule allows for exceptions for unusual circumstances – here, there were two: the wind changed (which would lead 100% of tour pros to consider changing clubs), and this was match play and there were no players behind this group.
- The rule allows for an appeal process to occur after the round has been completed – and there is no indication the Ms. Pressel was allowed time, after the round ended, to scrape herself off the ceiling, compose her thoughts, and present her case under calmer circumstances and before the final match was allowed to proceed without her.
In this case, there was an abundance of poor judgment. First of all, no harm/no foul: this was the last group on the golf course, and no one was being held up – unless it was Ms. Pressel, the faster of the two players. (As with pro football, when you are setting up a telecast, it is easy to splice things in a way to create whatever pace you like.) Secondly, this is a rule that is almost never enforced, and indeed may never before have been enforced in a match play tournament. What was the point of suddenly opting for strict enforcement of a rarely-invoked rule, other than to lecture the public about slow play, and to do so in such a way as to ruin an otherwise entertaining tournament? If the LPGA is intending to become more aggressive about enforcement, it should begin by spreading the word to all the players, over time and in a more meaningful way, and perhaps springing it on a few players in the early rounds of a non-major, stroke-play event where the impact is less catastrophic. For sure, don’t start in a big-deal, match play event featuring your top-64 marquee players, invoke it in a semi-final match with no one else on the course, and apply it, without discretionary consideration of extenuating circumstances, against only one of the two players in the targeted group.