RANCHO MIRAGE (California) • Tour rules officials defended their decision to hit Lexi Thompson with a four-stroke penalty on Sunday, a move that denied the American victory in the first women's golf Major of the season at the ANA Inspiration.
The 22-year-old was left distraught after being informed following the 12th hole of the final round - when she was leading by three strokes - that she was to be penalised four strokes for an incident in Saturday's third round spotted by a television viewer.
Although Thompson fought back to play the remaining six holes in two under, she lost an agonising sudden-death play-off to Ryu So Yeon at Mission Hills Country Club.
But as the South Korean celebrated with the traditional leap into Poppie's Pond off the 18th green, the golf world was left in uproar by the decision that effectively robbed Thompson of the title.
Former men's world No. 1 Tiger Woods led a chorus of incredulity as the controversy unfolded. "Viewers at home should not be officials wearing stripes," the 14-time Major champion tweeted as the final round reached its climax.
Golfer Hunter Mahan chimed in: "Lexi lost lead on Sunday due to something that happened Saturday. Am I getting that right? Common sense just thrown right out the window!!"
TV viewers' scrutiny having a Major effect
Sunday's incident involving Lexi Thompson was the second time in as many years that a player leading on the final day of a Major had been hit with a penalty after a television viewer noticed a rules infraction.
Dustin Johnson won last year's US Open despite being alerted on the 12th tee that he probably would be given a one-stroke penalty when he finished his round because his ball had moved on the fifth green just before he putted.
Johnson was indeed assessed the penalty but still won by two strokes.
In a similar case, Anna Nordqvist lost to Brittany Lang in a playoff at last year's US Women's Open after being assessed a penalty for grounding her club in a bunker after officials reviewed high-definition video from the telecast. She was not informed of the penalty until a hole later.
Tiger Woods was the recipient of viewer scrutiny at the 2013 Masters when a second-round ball drop he made was called into question after he had already signed his scorecard. In that instance, the armchair observer turned out to be a longtime tournament official.
He was assessed a two-stroke penalty for an improper drop the next morning.
The LPGA stood by its decision, revealing that in an e-mail from a television viewer, Thompson had been spotted putting a marker at the side of her ball on the 17th green on Saturday before lifting it and replacing it in front of the marker before a putt of less than two feet.
The LPGA said she "breached Rule 20-7c (Playing From Wrong Place), and received a two-stroke penalty. She incurred an additional two-stroke penalty under Rule 6-6d for returning an incorrect scorecard in round three".
Her third-round five-under 67 was changed to a 71 as a result.
LPGA Tour rules official Sue Witters, who had informed a stunned Thompson of the penalty after the 12th hole, said she understood the outrage of fans but insisted that no other option was available.
"Sure, but what's my choice? A violation in the rules and then it would be the opposite story: Oh, they knew, why didn't they do anything about it," she said.
"I can't go to bed tonight knowing that I let a rule slide. You know, it's a hard thing to do, and it made me sick, to be honest with you."
LPGA executive Heather Daly Donofrio also defended the decision of rules officials.
"When you have a situation like this, it's extremely difficult," she said. "This is the last thing that the rules team want to do. But their job is to enforce the rules of the game, regardless of who the player is and what the situation is and what the championship is."
However, Bernard Gallacher, three-time captain of Europe's Ryder Cup team, told BBC Radio 4's Today programme "the LPGA had the power to dismiss that person (the TV viewer), they should have completely ignored it".
Thompson, whose only Major win was in this event in 2014, could be seen choking back tears on the course after being informed of the penalty.
"Is this a joke?" she said as she strode towards the 13th tee. "That's just ridiculous.
"I did not intentionally do that (violation). So to the officials, or whatever called in, that was not my purpose. I didn't even realise I did that."
The galleries, meanwhile, roared their support, chanting and cheering for Thompson as she completed her round. "They really got me through the whole round," she said. "I felt strong through the finish."
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, NYTIMES