There is a rule about traveling with the ball in the NBA. Buried somewhere within the confines of its thick rulebook is stated that taking more than two steps as a continuation will be deemed illegal and an automatic turnover of possession.
Which means players can’t do it. No warnings. No grey areas. No ifs, ands or buts.
And yet, watch any NBA game and you’ll be able to pick out traveling violations like hunting for hay in a haystack. It’s the ones that are actually whistled, though, which take on Abominable Snowman-like proportions. Spot one and you’ll have a conversation icebreaker for weeks on end.
Golf has a similar rules violation. For so long, on so many tours around the world, the penalty for slow play has most often been the following message: “You’d better not do it, but if you do, well … just don't, please.”
That was the directive from PGA Tour officials two weeks ago when Kevin Na turned TPC Sawgrass into his personal waiting room, hesitating and waggling and even backing off on many of his shots.
Perhaps the backlash against the lack of a stroke penalty made an impact on the women’s game this past weekend. Maybe it simply brought the issue to the forefront of consciousness once again. Or possibly it had no effect at all. Whatever the case, the issue reared its head once again this past weekend, with Morgan Pressel being assessed a loss-of-hole penalty during her semifinal match against Azahara Munoz in the Sybase Match Play Championship.
It’s not the fact that Pressel was given a penalty that caused such an uproar; it’s that the situation hardly made it a necessity.
Playing as the second of two matches with nobody waiting behind them, both Pressel and Munoz admitted they were playing slowly, but it was the former who received the disciplinary measure after taking too long to hit her shots on the 12th hole. It turned an apparent 3-up lead for Pressel into a mere 1-up lead, which she later parlayed into a match loss in one of the more bizarre turnabouts we’ll ever witness.
It’s impossible to argue that this wasn’t the proper action taken against Pressel. The rule is in place, she broke the rule and therefore she was subject to the subsequent penalty. Case closed.
Or is it? Surely there have been many other times – very possibly even other times during the Sybase matches – when players were on the clock and continued to play too slowly. All of which makes the enforcement of such a policy subjective at best.
Look at it this way: Considering the number of slow-play penalties on the LPGA has numbered in single-digits during the past three-plus seasons, this seemed like an awfully quizzical time to start keeping players beholden to the rule.
Really, the issue comes down to a philosophical difference: Either rules are rules and they should be enforced at all times, anytime or there are certainly unwritten stipulations and interpretations to the rules. The latter theory would suggest that some semblance of common sense be addressed as part of the rules.
To employ the aforementioned analogy, this would be like NBA referees constantly allowing traveling during the course of play – until, say, LeBron James took an extra step toward the basket with two minutes to play in a tied playoff game.
The real shame of the entire situation is that the LPGA – desperately in need of more players with superstar potential – furnished a champion on Sunday who has the youth, the look and, most importantly, the talent to be a top-level global star. And yet, Munoz’s victory has been easily and completely overshadowed by the incident with Pressel, negating the marketing power of winning a prestigious event in the New York area.
It was either the right call at the wrong time or the wrong call at the right time. The witch hunt to eradicate slow play within the game’s elite ranks is growing by the day and this occurrence served to pacify the masses seeking retribution against the sin.
What remains to be seen is whether this ruling will open the floodgates for more slow play penalties in the future, enduring as a tipping point for the issue, or simply live as a one-off circumstance that forever leaves lingering questions as to when, where, why and how it’s acceptable to break a rule without being properly penalized.
Much like an NBA traveling call, Pressel broke a rule. The punishment fit the crime. It just didn’t fit so many of the other nonexistent punishments that preceded it.