This past weekend’s sports schedule was its usual robust self, and then some. The Major League Baseball season opened, the men’s and women’s Final Four took place, and the NHL and NBA seasons continued their regular-season conclusion.
But for those of us living in Connecticut, the main focus of the sports world was the UConn women losing in the Final Four semifinal to Mississippi State in Dallas, thus ending the team’s record 111-game win streak and halting the march toward a fifth straight national title.
The game ended in overtime past midnight Friday, with MSU making one last remarkable bucket at the buzzer, so we were into April Fool’s Day on the East Coast, but no one was laughing at the tie-in. As I’ve gotten older, I like to see new winners as often as possible, but when an athlete or team is close to continuing an excellence that could be of immortal impact, you kind of like to see it continue.
UConn was seven short of matching the all-time NCAA winning streak of any sport, and the fifth title would have added to their record. But it’s likely every non-UConn fan out there was hoping for an upset just to take a breather from Geno Auriemma’s team, so there was no national remorse that the big, bad Huskies were eclipsed for the first time since 2014.
As harsh as that loss was for UConn supporters, another came along on Sunday afternoon that in some respects was more brutal for the fans of the person it affected, Lexi Thompson, and for the sport in general. The four-stroke penalty she had to absorb on the 12th hole of her final round at the ANA Inspiration, the result of a television viewer calling in what they felt was a bad replacement of the ball by Thompson on the putting green during Saturday’s round, sent her reeling emotionally. Despite a heroic effort to get the two-stroke edge back that she held before the penalty, she could only get into a playoff, which she lost on the first hole.
The popular adage about wins and losses is that you learn more from losing than winning. I think the legitimacy of that depends on who is involved and the manner of losing.
Taking the UConn women first, all season long their coach wasn’t convinced that their lack of leadership experience wouldn’t come back to haunt them at some point. But they kept passing every test, until the Final Four semi, when all their faults came out in force, mainly in the form of indecision in the face of tough defense. They made errors on offense that no one had seen from them all year.
Given that four of the five starters are back next year, that two talented transfers will be eligible, and a crazy good freshmen class is coming in, losing this weekend will be a motivational force like none other. When talent meets off-the-chart motivation, the result could be monstrously good. The Lady Huskies will have laserlike focus, which started the minute after they lost.
As for Lexi Thompson, she’s been a great golf talent from a young age, and at just 22, was not ready for the emotional hit the penalty gave her. I thought it was great she was concerned that there would be the impression she tried to cheat or mismark on purpose to get an edge. She didn’t want any doubt cast on her character.
But then for the rest of the round, she about overcame this stunning and misguided ruling but couldn’t get all the way back. Her immediate response as a player belied her young years, and was akin to how we have seen Dustin Johnson respond to rules incidents, most notably at last year’s U.S. Open. He continues unruffled and composed after disasters, which seems to be the best way forward in adversity. That’s what Thompson did, keeping her game in shape while undoubtedly churning inside. Her emotions did show when all was said and done, but to stand around after the playoff and sign autographs and pose for photos indicated she has what it takes to put this behind her and excel. She will undoubtedly think about this penalty every time she marks the ball for the foreseeable future until it becomes just a bad memory people bring up every so often.
I’m a believer in the Tom Watson Rule of Getting Back to Even. He feels for every down moment, he wants to have an up one to “get back to even.” That has worked for Dustin Johnson, and it will work for Thompson, too. Something good will come along to put her back to even.
In the meantime, the insanity of rules officials allowing people sitting at their home to dictate how major championships are decided has to stop. We hear how officials say they want to use as much evidence at their disposal as possible to make decisions, but until every single golfer in a championship is having every single shot filmed or viewable on videotape, then the equity that rules-makers say is so important to the game will not be achieved. To view every shot made is not feasible, so at-home-rules-makers should not be either. How is it fair for equal rules observance if just the leaders are being critiqued when a player who may have remarked laterally a half-inch or so off back in the pack away from cameras isn’t penalized?
This is an unanswerable question because it’s not fair to those under the microscope. And at the least, a penalty of this nature from a round completed a day earlier should not be thrown into the competitive mix the next day. When things of this nature occur, it makes golf look dumb, stupid and out of date with nongolfers, the people the game is trying to attract.
To have some obscure person deciding the outcome of a championship from their living room is about as backward as the game can get. Let’s have their identity brought out so they can be asked what is their motivation. Are they someone wanting another competitor to win so they try to muck up the leaderboard? If the putt had been 30 feet instead of a couple, or if the putt had been missed, would the caller still have dialed up? These home viewers should not be allowed to be a clandestine, shadowy element of the game. Put them through a vetting process to determine their intent. Did just one person make a call? Allowing this to happen puts the game on edge of having false claims made about rules incidents.
Tournament committees can make decisions they see fit to provide an outcome that is prudent and equitable. Thompson had no recourse, no appeal process she could go through to reduce the penalty. The committee could have done that for her and slapped two strokes on her. When a cherry-picked TV moment is allowed to enter the proceedings, then golf isn’t made to look prudent or equitable.