In order to understand how Lexi Thompson lost the first major tournament on the LPGA Tour calendar on Sunday, it is important to remember 1) that golf fetishizes its many, many rules in a way that an originalist Supreme Court justice might consider uptight, and 2) is watched on television by an audience that shares that particular fetish. Some of this qualifies as part of golf's appeal—the broader pastoral gentility and all those elaborate decorum rituals are stretched dangerously thin over the usual psychotic competitive focus and the high-pressure virtuosity of individual sports.
That tension, or that tension plus the aforementioned uptightness, is why all those rules exist in the first place. Golf asks players to do things like mark their own ball on the putting green, but the rules know better than to trust them to do it honestly; the LPGA's rules are such that if a player marks her ball in a way that gives her an undue advantage, she's penalized two strokes. If she signs a scorecard attesting that she didn't do that when in fact she did, she's penalized two more; that last penalty is a reduction from the old standard, which was immediate disqualification. All of this will become important.
On Sunday, after 12 holes, 22-year-old American star Lexi Thompson seemed very much on her way to a win at the ANA Inspiration open in Rancho Mirage, California. Before she reached the tee on the 13th hole, though, a LPGA official informed her that her four-stroke lead over So Yeon Ryu had become a one-stroke deficit. The reason for this was that, while putting her ball down on the green after marking her putt during play on Saturday, Thompson had minutely and apparently inadvertently moved the ball slightly closer to the cup. The distance in question was maybe, but probably not quite, an inch; no one involved noticed it at the time. The one exception to this was an anonymous fan watching at home, who noticed the micro-infraction and wrote an email to LPGA officials. They reviewed the video and, one day later, assessed the penalty. Here's the offense. Trigger warning for imperceptible rule-breaking.
Thompson was quite understandably astonished by this, and more astonishingly responded with incomprehensible poise—Thompson went on to birdie three of the last six holes to force a playoff with Ryu, where she fell one stroke short. Thompson's public response, on Instagram, was precisely what you might expect from a polished professional golfer: congratulations to Ryu, an explanation that the infraction such as it existed was unintentional, and some words of gratitude to her fans for their support. It was impressive in the same strange way that everything else top golfers do is impressive.
But let's get back to what actually happened here: the outcome of a major sporting event was changed (and Thompson lost more than $200,000 in prize money) because some squeaker dry-snitched via email over what amounted to a few centimeters of very well-maintained grass. Leave aside the way that golf's simultaneous openness and deeply constipated non-openness—players keep their own score and do their own drops, just as they would if there weren't millions of dollars at stake, watched over by some of the most constitutionally inflexible people that have existed in all of human history—conspire to make this sort of thing possible. Consider that, in this case, one fastidious weirdo's fixation on the finest of fine points erased an athlete's lead with a To Whom It May Concern email. Consider what would happen, as the Wall Street Journal's Jason Gay writes, if baseball or football were to go about altering the outcomes of games, during those games, because of something that wound up in their inbox. I'd ask you to consider what it would be like if someone like our severely retentive snitchwad emailer was in charge of your government or workplace or whatever, but that is perhaps a shade too dark. So just consider this: what kind of person writes that email, and what can you do every day, in every way, to avoid becoming that way?