Gustafson ruling raises sensitive questions
RALEIGH, N.C. -- Golf commentators often are accused of unduly toeing the party line, but such an accusation cannot be thrown at Roger Maltbie and the rest of the NBC commentary team.
On Sunday, Maltbie was astonishingly outspoken in his condemnation of the ruling that handed Sophie Gustafson a controversial victory at the LPGA Tour's Samsung World Championship at The Woodlands near Houston.
On the 14th green, Gustafson's ball moved after she seemed to have addressed it. No immediate ruling was made. Instead, the Swede was taken to the NBC compound after the round, but before signing her card, to view a tape of the incident.
The head-on camera angle was not perfect, but it nonetheless appeared to show Gustafson grounding her club behind the ball, which meant she would have been deemed to have addressed it.
Gustafson said she hadn't soled -- or grounded -- her club, and LPGA officials said that was good enough for them.
The decision shocked the NBC commentators, who fully expected that Gustafson would be penalized two strokes -- one for addressing a ball that moved, and another for not replacing the ball after it did move.
Anchor Dan Hicks quickly pointed out that Gustafson is dating LPGA commissioner Ty Votaw, which has met with some disapproval.
"This is the exact type of situation that some of the players on the LPGA Tour said they were uncomfortable about," Hicks said. "What if there was to be a ruling having to deal with Sophie Gustafson?"
That in itself didn't seem to bother Maltbie.
"I'm more concerned about a bigger issue than that -- and that's playing by the rules of the game," he said. "I don't believe my eyes lied to me. I'm pretty clear in what I saw and I can't see how it could be construed any other way. I have a big problem with it."
LPGA player Dottie Pepper, who was part of the commentary team, added, "No way would she ever intend to cheat, but I think there was something really wrong done here."
NBC then replayed the incident and Maltbie described what he was watching.
"The putter is soled behind the ball," he said. "She has taken her stance. She is ready to go. That ball has been addressed. She saw it was oscillating and might move so she backed away from it."
Rules official Jim Haley then explained how the officials had arrived at their decision.
"Unfortunately, there was only one camera angle," he said. "From what I could tell, yes, the player's putter was behind the ball. Sophie was especially aware that is a penalty situation if she does ground her club and she told us she did not ground her club. Through that conversation we weren't going to dispute her integrity."
Juli Inkster, who was playing with Gustafson, defended her fellow competitor.
"From the camera angle, you can't really tell if she addressed it or not," Inkster said. "Sophie's routine is she hovers over the ball and then puts her putter down.
"Golf's an honor game. It didn't look like she addressed it. I totally believe in what Sophie says. You've got to give her the benefit of the doubt."
But that wasn't enough to satisfy Maltbie.
"I wish they had looked at her routine on the ensuing holes and seen clearly that she does sole the putter behind the ball," he said. "It does not hover."
And that was the end of it. NBC quickly wrapped up its telecast, leaving viewers scratching their heads at how NBC's commentators and the rules officials could have seen things so differently.
But the truth is that the rules officials were in a tough spot. Golf is perhaps unique in that officials usually take the word of the competitor in a rules dispute, unless there is emphatic evidence to the contrary.
The NBC team, particularly Maltbie, thought there was clear evidence of a rules breach, but the officials obviously didn't. That's not really a satisfactory explanation, but it is an accurate one.
The decision gave Gustafson a two-stroke victory, instead of relegating her to a playoff. But it's a victory that will always have a proverbial asterisk against it.
"The ball had stopped on the top of the slope and I marked it and then I put it back," Gustafson said. "I knew that it could move and so I never grounded my club. Then it started to wobble, so I backed off.
"Probably three to five seconds later, it started to roll down the slope. If it's a close call, I think you should look because you always want to remove the doubt."
Those comments likely won't satisfy doubters, and it's probably not exactly the sort of publicity Votaw wants for the LPGA.
Nobody is suggesting that the officials had his relationship with Gustafson in mind when they made the call, but the incident is certain to again raise the question of whether the "friendship" is appropriate.
It's sort of like the boss of a company dating one of his workers. Any time that worker gets promoted, or a pay raise, or whatever, it's bound to raise suspicions of preferential treatment.
Sunday's incident brings to mind a similar case involving Colin Montgomerie at last year's Volvo Masters, the final event of the season on the European tour.
In that situation, television evidence seemed to overwhelmingly demonstrate that Montgomerie had breached the rules by hitting a putt before the ball had stopped rolling, but when he was presented with the evidence, he claimed that what the tape appeared to show was not actually what happened.
Again, the officials sided with the player, and Montgomerie was crowned co-champion with Bernhard Langer after they ran out of light for their playoff.
Perhaps rules officials are too cozy with the players, and maybe a day will come when officials do in fact dispute their integrity. But until there is clear evidence of an epidemic of cheating, this will not happen.
And that's probably a good thing, even if Gustafson's victory will always be tainted in the minds of some.