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"GIMMEGATE"

What are the rules behind the 2015 Solheim Cup's most controversial moment?

· Golf
Team USA's astonishing comeback in the singles matches to win the 2015 Solheim Cup yesterday was inspired by the event's most controversial moment since Annika Sorenstam was forced to replay a holed chip-shot at Loch Lomond back in 2000
Early Sunday morning, the European duo of Charley Hull and Suzann Pettersen returned to the course to complete their fourball match against the American team of Brittany Lincicombe and Alison Lee. The Europeans were 1 down overnight but a birdie from Hull on 16 drew them level before the match descended into acrimony on the 17th green.
The initial facts are fairly simple. The Europeans had made par, leaving Lee with a birdie putt from around 12 feet to win the hole.  She missed and the ball rolled around 18 inches past. Lee then picked up her ball thinking the short putt had been conceded.
Then all hell broke loose.  Pettersen insisted Europe had not concede the putt, meaning that Lee was penalized 1 shot and Europe won the hole, and then went on to win the match 2-up, amidst tears, arguments and confusion. You can view footage of the incident here.
THE RULES OF GOLF ON CONCEDING PUTTS
Before considering the "sportmanship" of the whole thing, what are the rules of golf governing concessions of putts and these circumstances?  They are actually fairly clear (as far as golf rules go anyway...).
Rule 2-4 allows the concession of an opponents next stroke at any time:
"A player may concede his opponent's next stroke at any time, provided the opponent's ball is at rest.  The opponent is considered to have holed out with his next stroke, and the ball may be removed by either side"
So far, so good. But what happens, as did at the Solheim Cup, when one side thinks their stroke has been conceded, but actually it has not?  Thankfully, the good-old R&A have covered this very scenario in their "Decisions on the Rules of Golf"  Decision 2-4/3 is as follows:

"Q. In a match between A and B, B made a statement which A interpreted to
mean that his (A’s) next stroke was conceded. Accordingly, A lifted his ball. B
then said that he had not conceded A’s next stroke. What is the ruling?

A. If B’s statement could reasonably have led A to think his next stroke
had been conceded, in equity (Rule 1-4), A should replace his ball as near as
possible to where it lay, without penalty.

Otherwise, A would incur a penalty stroke for lifting his ball without
marking its position – Rule 20-1 – and he must replace his ball as near as
possible to where it lay."

Still with me?  Basically, Alison Lee incurred the penalty set out in the final paragraph - and there was no point then replacing her ball as the best score she could make was bogey, which would have lost the hole.  
SO HOW DO THESE RULES APPLY TO THE CONTROVERSY ON THE 17TH?
The essence of all of this is the wording "if B's statement could reasonably have led A to think his next stroke had been conceded".  Put more simply, did the Europeans make any statement that Lee could have interpreted (rightly or wrongly) as meaning the putt was conceded?  The video evidence on this is inconclusive - we don't hear any concessions from the Europeans, and they claim they did not say anything.  
Assuming that is the case, then the rules are pretty clear - Lee incurs the penalty.  There is nothing in the rules regarding nods, or winks, or starting to walk away from the green (as Charley Hull did when Lee's putt slipped by).  It has to be a statement, which I think we can presume must be verbalised, not just body language, although the lawyer in me is seeing some wiggle-room in that, particularly given that anyone who has ever played match-play golf knows that concessions are often given by variety of nods, grunts, waves and thumbs-ups.
What is also clear, is that the statement must be made by one of the players themselves - not a caddie, or team captain or assistant (see Rule 2-4 again, and Decision 2-4/3.5).  This makes one of the comments made by match referee Dan Maselli, towards the end of this interview a little odd, in that he mentions that Lee could have potentially escaped penalty if a statement had been made by a caddie or team captain, etc. I think however, it is a little unkind to pay too much attention to that - he was giving a bit of color to the situation for a TV audience and what he does make clear is that, in any event,  nothing was said by anyone.
A final point to note on the rules is that Players, even though they play little match-play these days, were well aware of how "gimmes" should be dealt with.  The image below (and in the title of this blog) formed part of a rules-briefing to players where it was made very clear to them that putts had to be conceded expressly - and this was a point European Captain Carin Koch made after the incident.
SPORTSMANSHIP
The rules are one thing, but the spirit of the game and whether the European team acted appropriately in claiming the hole are an entirely different matter.  While I love the traditions of golf I am of the view that the game needs to be mixed up a little sometimes, and it does no harm for some players or events to challenge the status quo of golf's image - like Bubba Watson and Ian Pouter firing up the crowd at the 2012 Ryder Cup or see my previous blog on Made in Denmark and its "Himmerland Hill".
So, if Pettersen and Hull had made Alison Lee hole out her 18-inch putt on the 17th that would've been fine by me. It might be customary to give putts of that length, but it is the essence of match play to keep your opponent on the edge- perhaps by making some generous concessions early-on but then making them see in a very short putt later in the round (Walter Hagen being the master of this).  
What is not ok is to allow a crucial match to be influenced by such a technicality.  The Europeans knew that Lee thought the putt had been conceded, and they could have offered for her to replace the ball and putt it, or tell the referee that the putt had, in fact, been conceded.  
Suzann Pettersen is taking the brunt of the flack for her part in this and she is the obvious villain.  While Alison Lee clearly made a mistake, it could have been fixed.  Petterson was the senior figure in the European pairing (she is, in fact, Europe's top-ranked player) and so was clearly the leader between herself and 19 year-old Hull, albeit I think this somewhat downplays Charley Hull's maturity and stature in the game.
I do also slightly question Carin Koch's role at the time - she could (and perhaps should) have insisted that Pettersen changed her mind at the 17th, although it seems that Pettersen was adamant.  Thereafter, Koch had little choice but to publicly back her player and was in a very difficult position, regardless of what her personal view may have been.
While I have been writing this blog, Pettersen has now issued a full apology for the incident on her instagram account, which opens as follows:-
I've never felt more gutted and truly sad about what went down Sunday on the 17th at the Solheim Cup.  I am so sorry for not thinking about the bigger picture in the heat of the battle and competition
She deserves a lot of credit for this and I suspect it will go a long way to ensuring the controversy surrounding the incident cools down and doesn't carry-over into future editions of the Solheim Cup.
I have some sympathy with her explanation that she got "carried away in the heat of battle" and this sort of thing is probably inevitable if we want golf to be a little more edgy and appealing to a wider audience.  The key point is that Pettersen recognized her error and made this statement - proving her own respect for the spirit of the game and how important that tradition remains despite golf's slow modernization.
Jamie McDonald is a business and legal advisor operating in the sports, media, technology and entertainment industries. He specialises in advising athletes, sports events, media organisations and tech companies on both commercial and legal issues. Prior to founding his consultancy sportsandlegal.com he was in-house counsel for IMG Golf in London for 7.5 years.
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