Michelle Wie was disqualified from her first professional tournament on Sunday.
Learning the hard way
PALM DESERT, Calif. » The first sign that something had gone wrong for Michelle Wie was when she was nowhere to be found more than a half-hour after finishing fourth in her professional debut.
An official with the LPGA Tour would only say she was in a meeting.
That's when I turned to a reporter next to me at the Samsung World Championship and said, "I bet she's been disqualified." I immediately thought back to the previous day, when I watched Wie take a penalty drop from a bush on a hill above the seventh green during the third round.
The story took a sticky turn when Michael Bamberger, a senior writer at Sports Illustrated who was with us on Saturday, said he had mentioned the drop to LPGA Tour rules official Robert O. Smith.
After Wie and her caddie made two trips to the seventh green Sunday evening to reconstruct the sequence of events, the 16-year-old was disqualified, an embarrassing end to the start of her pro career.
That made more news than Annika Sorenstam winning by eight shots. And it raised questions about the role of reporters.
Football has referees. Tennis has line judges. Baseball has umpires. Golfers, however, are responsible for calling penalties on themselves, and the stigma for cheating can stick forever.
David Toms disqualified himself from the British Open this year when he thought a short putt on the 17th hole moved ever so slightly before he hit it. Toms was the only one who would have known, and even he wasn't sure. But to be safe, he took himself out of the tournament. There are dozens of examples like that.
Players also have an obligation to call penalties on their peers if they see them. Television gets into the act, too, the most famous case being when a viewer saw Craig Stadler kneeling to hit a shot and placing a towel on the ground to keep his pants from getting dirty. He was cited for building his stance and DQ'd.
Should golf writers do anything when they think they see an infraction?
They obviously can't ignore it, but they should pursue it as part of their coverage, not to enforce the rules. Reporters are there to record the news, not to be guardians of the game.
I came across this question in March at the Bay Hill Invitational, when K.J. Choi played a bunker shot to the 18th green. He left his first shot in the sand, then swept his foot over the sand to fill in the hole.
It appeared to be a violation, since players cannot test conditions in the hazard. Should that have been a double bogey instead of a bogey because of the one-shot penalty?
I asked rules official Mark Russell about it, and he went into the scoring trailer to speak to Choi before he signed his card. Turns out there is an exception under Rule 13-4 for smoothing sand after a shot, provided it doesn't improve the lie on the next shot.
Bamberger was standing about 15 yards away as Wie's 5-wood on the uphill, 470-yard hole hit hard off the top of a slope and shot into an island of desert bushes.
When her caddie, 18-year LPGA veteran Greg Johnston, found the ball, Wie wasted no time telling fellow player Grace Park she was taking an unplayable lie, then taking out her driver to measure two club lengths and taking a drop. The first time, the ball inched forward, and she dropped it again. From there, some fronds from a small, desert palm slightly interfered with her backswing. She had 45 feet to the hole, the first 20 feet down a steep slope to the green. It was a weak, nervous chip to 15 feet, but she made the par putt.
Bamberger stayed behind and stepped off the distance from where her ball was in the bush to the hole, and from where she dropped to the hole. It caused him enough concern to bring it up to Smith the next day.
But if it bothered him enough that he paced it off, he shouldn't have waited until the next day to raise the issue. He has been around golf long enough to know that once a card is signed, there is no going back.
Asked why he didn't bring it up sooner, Bamberger said: "That didn't occur to me. I was still in my reporter's mode. I wanted to talk to her first."
And he did.
Bamberger asked her after the third round how she knew the drop was not closer to the hole, and Wie responded with "the triangle thing." Draw a line to the hole from the original lie, a line to the hole from where she dropped and "try to make an equilateral triangle."
"It sounds like I'm teaching geometry here," she said.
Bamberger said he became more uncomfortable the more he thought about it.
What struck me as peculiar was not where Wie took the drop, but that she didn't ask for any help.
PGA Tour players get so uptight about the rules that they will call for an official if their shoes are untied.
Wie looked like she knew what she was doing. It was the third unplayable lie she had taken that week without calling for an official, and the high school junior went about her business quickly and decisively.
And while she said Sunday evening that she respects the rules and the verdict on her drop, Wie felt she did nothing wrong.
"Me and Greg were talking when we were up at the shot," she said. "He told me, 'Watch out that you're not closer.' I made sure that I was farther. Well, I thought I was farther behind. But it looked fine to me. I didn't have any question in my mind."
Until Sunday, and then it was too late.
Doug Ferguson has covered golf for The Associated Press since 1998