ORLANDO, Fla. – Suzann Pettersen’s apology was delivered in heartfelt fashion.
It came across as sincere Wednesday on Golf Central.
It rang genuine in communicating her regret in how she handled that phantom concession at the 17th green on that controversial Sunday morning at the Solheim Cup a little more than a week ago.
It was also sorely incomplete.
Golf Channel’s Tim Rosaforte asked Pettersen three times what she would do differently if she were able to go back to the 17th green when American Alison Lee was penalized for scooping up her ball after thinking she heard the Europeans concede her 18-inch putt, but Pettersen couldn’t answer the question.
Rosaforte's 45-minute interview of Pettersen was edited before being aired on Golf Central, but he gave her three chances to answer the question as they sat in front of cameras in Pettersen’s Orlando home. With each query, Pettersen was unable to offer a specific explanation of how she could have or should have or would have handled what happened on the 17th green differently.
“I don’t know,” Pettersen said the final time Rosaforte asked.
I’m sorry, but there’s no moving on without an answer to that.
The answer is absolutely vital to the credibility of an apology.
That’s because the answer is vital to understanding the complex nature of what went wrong on the 17th green, of how Pettersen could be completely within her rights as a player to hold Lee to the letter of the law within the Rules of Golf and yet somehow be guilty of a breach of etiquette and sportsmanship so egregious that it violated the spirit of the game.
The answer is fundamental to understanding how what happened on the 17th green threatened the reputation of a world-class player and the integrity of a world-class event.
It’s the most important question Pettersen was posed in the interview.
In a crisis-management move to get her contrition out front, an important step was skipped.
Without knowing what Pettersen would have done differently on the 17th green, there’s no real lesson learned for all of us. That’s the thing. That’s important because the answer makes this about more than Pettersen and her need for forgiveness. It makes Pettersen’s and Lee’s pain useful to us in understanding how something as ethereal as “the spirit of the game” would have been better served.
This will easily get misconstrued, so please understand, an answer to that question doesn’t necessarily go to Pettersen’s credibility. An answer goes to the credibility of an apology, of why an apology is even required. That’s an important distinction to make as we put ourselves in Pettersen’s place and wonder what we would have done.
You cannot listen to Pettersen’s interview and not hear the earnestness in her wanting to understand how she could have better served the spirit of the game and the Solheim Cup.
“At the end of the day, the rules are the rules,” Pettersen said. “I must say, there is quite gray [areas] playing by the rules of the game and being the bigger sportsmanship. At the end of the day, it means it’s a very fine line ... I keep having these conversations inside of my head, like, ‘What was right within the game of golf? Did we do what was right within the spirit of the game?’
“The spirit of the game seems to outlast anything else, so that’s the lesson I’ve learned.”
If you’re amid a very large contingent that believes Pettersen did nothing wrong, you aren’t changing your mind without hearing Pettersen detail what she should have done differently.
And if you’re a harsh critic of Pettersen’s, you’re not being fair to her if you can’t definitively answer what she should have done differently after seeing Lee scoop up her putt.
It’s not as simple as saying Pettersen should have conceded the short putt to Lee in the first place.
There was absolutely nothing wrong with Pettersen and her playing partner, Charley Hull, requiring that Lee make that 18-inch putt. This did not become complex or controversial until after Lee scooped up her ball thinking the Europeans had given her the putt. It grew complex in how Lee mistakenly came to believe the Europeans had conceded the putt.
After Lee missed an 8-foot birdie chance and started walking to the 18-inch putt she had left to halve the hole, Hull and the two European caddies marched away, as if they were conceding the putt. They were in Lee’s line of sight while Pettersen was behind Lee, on the other side of the green. Lee said she thought she heard someone say the putt was good as Hull and the caddies began marching away.
Standing where Pettersen was, she could see how Hull and the two European caddies may have unwittingly and unintentionally duped Lee into thinking the putt was conceded. That’s not unfair to conclude because even the referee, Dan Maselli, was a victim of misdirection - so much so that he called out “the hole is halved in four” as Lee was picking up her ball. It wasn’t until Pettersen told Maselli that the putt was not conceded that the penalty was incurred and the hole was lost.
Pettersen’s sin, in the eyes of so many, was having the best vantage point of seeing how Lee may have been duped into a penalty. It was in failing to see how it was wrong for the Europeans to win the hole in that manner. That’s where the question of sportsmanship enters. It’s where the question of violating the spirit of the game enters. It’s where critics say Pettersen should have understood there was no honor in winning a match that way.
Pettersen told Rosaforte she still beats herself up wondering specifically what she should have done differently.
“It all happened so quick,” Pettersen said. “That’s kind of what I keep thinking back about, and I keep rewinding the tape, like, ‘But what could I have done differently? ... Obviously, that’s not really how you want that situation to go down ... When I looked back, thinking, ‘Should I have just calmed it all down and not walked off the 17th the way we did straight away? Or should we have had a talk about it?’ I mean, I don’t know.”
So in the final analysis, what’s the answer here? What should Pettersen have done differently in that circumstance that would have honored the spirit of the game?
Only Pettersen can dig out the answer that is right for her, but it leads to questions about what realistic options were available to her within the Rules of Golf. What could she actually have done?
Kendra Graham, Golf Channel’s rules expert and the former USGA director of women’s competitions, laid out some options in an email to three questions this writer posed to her:
1. How could a player in Suzann’s position have remedied or changed the result on the 17th before the next tee shot was struck at No. 18?
“Immediately upon realizing that Alison Lee had picked up her ball, Suzann could have said nothing,” Graham wrote. “In match play, a player can overlook an opponent's breach of a rule (not the case in stroke play). The ‘official’ way of doing so is by not making a claim (Rule 2-5). Suzann went to the referee and explained that she did not concede the putt, bringing it to his attention. At that point, the referee is obligated to apply the penalty (see Definition of Referee).
“Obviously, Suzann made a split-second decision. In order to have been ‘in the spirit of the game,’ she should have ignored the fact that Alison had picked up her ball, walked off the putting green and headed to the 18th tee with the match all square. The only other alternative would have been for the referee to use equity (Rule 1-4, also see Decision 2-4/3), if he felt that there was reason for Alison to believe her putt had been conceded, i.e., noise from the gallery. In that case, Alison would have been required to replace her ball without penalty and putt out.” (Click here for more on the ref's role)
2. How could Suzann have remedied the result after a tee shot was hit at 18, where a player in Suzann’s position is walking down the 18th fairway and realizes she isn’t comfortable the way she won the 17th hole?
“At any time prior to completing the 18th hole, the European side could have conceded the 18th hole (see Rule 2-4),” Graham wrote.
3. Was there any way to change the result after the final putt was holed at the 18th and the match appeared to be over? Could the captains have stepped in and changed the result when the match was over?
“No,” Graham wrote.
Pettersen expressed remorse in her Golf Channel interview. She communicated earnestness in wanting to be a better caretaker of the game and a deserving future Solheim Cup captain. She pledged a commitment to serving sportsmanship and the game’s larger picture.
“I just wish it never happened, and I wish nobody will ever be put in that situation ever again,” Pettersen said.
Pettersen’s apology is good for her, but knowing specifically what she should have done differently is good for the next player who stumbles in that position. It’s good for all of us in wanting to know how the ethereal “spirit of the game” can so formidably trump the actual Rules of Golf.