Column: Lexi Thompson mugged by 'armchair weasel' in ANA heartbreaker

Lexi-Thompson-Golf-Penalty-ANA Inspiration Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY Sports

Column: Lexi Thompson mugged by 'armchair weasel' in ANA heartbreaker

LPGA Tour

Column: Lexi Thompson mugged by 'armchair weasel' in ANA heartbreaker

COMMENTARY

RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. – Lexi Thompson walked into the scoring area and fell into her mother’s arms. If anyone deserved to have an ugly cry, the kind of heaving sobs that suck out all your energy, it was Thompson.

She’d been mugged mid-round at the ANA Inspiration, the victim of an armchair rules official (a weasel, really) who called in an infraction nearly 24 hours after the fact. Thompson went from the brink of ecstasy to agony in a matter of seconds.

LPGA rules official Sue Witters informed Thompson as she walked to the 13th tee that she had violated Rule 20-7c when she replaced her ball an inch away from its original position on a 1-foot putt on the 17th hole Saturday afternoon. She incurred a two-stroke penalty for the infraction, plus an addition two-stroke penalty under Rule 6-6d for turning in an incorrect scorecard.

Thompson’s two-stroke lead went poof! Twitter exploded. Even Tiger Woods weighed in.

“Oh my God,” Thompson said, walking to the tee. “This is ridiculous.”

“Is this a joke?” she asked.

Sadly, it wasn’t.

The sporting world joined her in united disbelief.

A four-stroke penalty on the back nine a major championship on Sunday is enough to send a sane person into hysterics. A teary-eyed Thompson, showing the kind of steely resolve that helped her win an LPGA title at 16, made birdie. Then another birdie on the 15th.

“That’s why I love playing with her,” said Thompson’s Solheim Cup partner Cristie Kerr. “She’s got the heart of a champion.”

So Yeon Ryu and Inbee Park were informed on the 16th hole that Lexi Thompson had incurred a four-stroke penalty. Park couldn’t believe it was possible.

They played on. Ryu, the 2011 U.S. Women’s Open champion, birdied the 18th to take a one-stroke lead.

 So Yeon Ryu

So Yeon Ryu jumped into Poppie’s Pond Sunday, but Lexi Thompson got hit by a tidal wave of support after a day-old penalty was called against her. (Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports)

Thompson came to the closing par 5 needing eagle to win the championship outright and birdie to tie Ryu. The crowd began chanting, “Le-xi! Le-xi!” unheard behavior outside the Solheim Cup.

Thompson, trying to stage one of the greatest comebacks in major championship history, hit a gorgeous approach, a 5-iron to 18 feet to set up an eagle putt for the ages.

The putt came up short.

Now Ryu, 26, who many consider the nicest player on the LPGA, would square off against America’s finest player in a sudden-death playoff.

Pettersen, a three-time runner-up at this championship, told Thompson to “stand up, make birdies and go win this.”

Anna Nordqvist, who lost the 2016 U.S. Women’s Open in a playoff after another bizarre rules fiasco, watched from the practice putting green.

“I feel Lexi’s pain,” said Nordqvist. “I just hope there will be rules changes going forward. You can’t help but cheer for her right now.”

When Thompson drove the ball in the rough and laid up, the atmosphere around Poppie’s Pond turned from electric to solemn as fans tried to reconcile with the fact that she might not pull this off.

As Ryu’s second shot rolled dangerously close to the water hazard, some fans were outwardly (and awkwardly) rooting for the ball to go in.

Instead, a steely Ryu got up and down for birdie – draining a 6-footer – to clinch the second major of her career. The victory ended a 2 1/2 year title drought for the elegant South Korean. Tears of joy flowed as she covered her face.

Lexi Thompson and caddie Kevin McAlpine had their big day Sunday taken away by something that happened on Saturday.  (Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports)

Ryu was admittedly “desperate” to win and called the unusual and controversial circumstances “weird.”

“This is America and Lexi is American,” said Ryu of the evening’s atmosphere. “So a lot of the crowd is going to be rooting for Lexi. But at the same time a lot of Koreans are coming out. I knew a lot of people are supporting me in Korea right now.”

As for Thompson, she bravely faced Golf Channel cameras and told the world that she did not intentionally move her ball that inch. And that it was the fans who got her to the finish.

“I fought hard coming in,” said Thompson. “I knew I could still win.”

Witters said she did not recognize the email address of the person who brought the infraction to the tour’s attention. She looks into all the calls and emails that come in, and when she took a look at the video from Saturday’s round it made her “sick.” But what could she do?

“I can’t go to bed at night knowing that I let a rule slide,” she said.

The USGA’s proposed rules changes for 2019 would prevent such a thing from happening in the future because of the new reasonable judgement standard. Thompson certainly made a reasonable effort to return the ball to its original position.

But that’s little comfort to Thompson, who left her mother’s arms after a long embrace and walked through the double doors to the autograph line, where she inspired the next generation with what it takes to be a pro’s pro.

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