Every profession has its rules. In golf there are 34 of them, but each comes with so many corollaries that the USGA's official handbook on the subject comprises 72 pages. In sportswriting the rules are mostly unwritten, but there is one that every scribe knows by heart: You report the news, not make it. Last week at the LPGA Samsung World Championship the role of professional golfer and professional journalist collided in an unexpected way.
Early Saturday afternoon in Palm Desert, Calif., on the 7th hole of her third round as a professional, 16-year-old Michelle Wie hooked her approach into a bush and took a penalty drop for an unplayable lie. Watching from about six feet away, SI senior writer Michael Bamberger was struck by the possibility that Wie had violated Rule 20-7, which states that a drop must be no nearer the hole than where the ball originally lay. After the hole was deserted, Bamberger examined the area where Wie took her drop, concluding that it had been "a full pace" closer to the hole.
Bamberger not only knows the rules, he also knows how to apply them--in 1985 he spent a year caddying on the PGA Tour, and in 1990 he caddied for a season on the European tour. But last week Bamberger was traveling on a different passport, as a reporter. As Wie continued her third round, he continued to think about the drop, wondering if there were extenuating circumstances that dictated its location. (He also knew that she was flustered because her round had gotten off to a rocky start, and she may have been rushing because her group was in danger of being put on the clock for slow play.) "It never occurred to me to call in a rules official," says Bamberger, who has been at SI since 1995. "I felt the correct thing was to go to Michelle first. I wanted to hear what she had to say. That's a reporter's first obligation."
After completing her one-under-par 71, Wie walked from the final green directly to a scoring trailer to sign her scorecard. When Bamberger finally spoke with her, Wie was confident that her drop had been proper but had no specifics to set his mind at ease.
Bamberger had a sleepless night on Saturday knowing that if he reported Wie, and if it was determined that she had broken a rule, she would be disqualified. It would be unprecedented for a reporter to affect the outcome of a tournament in such a manner, but Bamberger felt compelled to pursue the matter. "Adherence to the rules is the underlying value of the game," Bamberger says. "To stand in silence when you see an infraction is an infraction itself."
The next morning he went to the NBC compound to review footage, hoping it would change his mind. It didn't. He also revisited the 7th hole and again paced off Wie's drop. Now convinced that Wie had indeed committed an infraction--"I don't think she cheated. I think she was simply hasty," he says--Bamberger alerted rules officials.
Following her final round Wie was taken by LPGA officials back to the 7th hole to re-create her drop. Official Robert O. Smith concluded that the drop had been 12 to 18 inches closer to the hole than the unplayable lie, a two-stroke penalty. Because Wie did not add those strokes, she was disqualified per Rule 6 for signing an incorrect scorecard, forfeiting fourth-place money of $53,126. That evening, on the verge of tears, she faced reporters, saying, "I'm really sad that this happened, but you know, the rules are the rules. I respect that. I don't feel like I cheated or anything.... [The drop] looked right to me. But I learned my lesson--I'm going to call a rules official every single time." It was a sour end to what to that point had been a celebratory week for both her and women's golf, but one careless mistake will not diminish Wie's brilliant future.
The situation has stirred emotions because of Bamberger's role. There is widespread precedent for onlookers reporting penalties. Every week the PGA Tour receives multiple phone calls from TV viewers who think they have spotted infractions. To some, spectators who report violations are busybodies. In fact, third parties--even reporters--who point out rules infractions are protecting the field and preserving the integrity of the competition.
Last week Bamberger picked up an unlikely supporter in B.J. Wie, Michelle's fiercely loyal, protective father. He knows that his daughter, for all her prodigious physical talents, is still a teenager with much to learn. No doubt, now she will be more careful in applying the rules. On Sunday evening B.J. saw Bamberger in the press room and said, "Good job, Michael." Then he shook his hand.
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ILLUSTRATION BY JOHN CUNEO