I predict that by this time next year, the U.S. Golf Association’s newest champion, Erica Shepherd, will be remembered more for her lethal, lefty iron game than the controversy that surrounded her U.S. Girls’ Junior title. In fact, that could be the case by this time tomorrow.
The point is, Shepherd’s title isn’t the least bit tainted by the confusion – which is the word that should replace controversy – that surrounded her advancement into the final. As the facts and player/caddie accounts trickled in Friday evening and the replayed footage rolled, reasonable viewers should have recognized that Shepherd and her caddie Brent Nicoson acted instinctively and appropriately, and that the Rules of Golf took over from there.
Shepherd’s integrity quickly came into question when, after battling back from 2 down with four holes to play in the semifinal match, she won the 19th hole on a technicality. Shepherd had missed her birdie putt and stood across the green as opponent Elizabeth Moon missed hers. But Moon, with her back still to Shepherd, walked to the hole and scraped away the 4-incher that was left. Viewers could hear, on Fox Sports’ televised coverage of the match, Nicoson mumble the question to Shepherd about whether Moon’s putt was conceded. Shepherd’s simple answer: “I don’t think I gave you that.” The official stepped in from there, correctly applying Rule 18-2, which states that a player who purposefully causes her ball to move incurs a one-shot penalty and must replace the ball before continuing play. That one-shot penalty cost Moon the hole and the match.
Thus, Shepherd, a 16-year-old from Greenwood, Ind., had a great big target on her back on social media Friday evening. She was active on Twitter that night as the media railed against her, so it’s hard to imagine she missed all of that. Interestingly, many of her peers defended Shepherd. You don’t pick up a putt until it’s conceded – everyone knows that.
The Twitter aftermath confused me. When presented as a player who took a petty victory for a 4-inch putt not given, it was hard to see Shepherd as anything but immature. But the tweets I initially read were incomplete, if not entirely misreported. There’s the danger in guessing at a player’s intentions without hearing from the horse’s mouth. And in this case, we needed to hear from two horses – both Shepherd and her caddie.
The reality is, there wasn’t time for plotting or trickery on the 19th hole of that semifinal match. It all happened too quickly. In re-watching the end of the match – and in reading stories that contained insight from Nicoson – it was clearly Nicoson who set the events in motion. He drew his share of Twitter ire, too. Nicoson is a veteran of college golf, well-liked by his peers and with a good heart.
Twitter, en masse, called for Nicoson and Shepherd to ignore the rules violation – essentially give a pardon and continue the match. To me, that’s an unfair ask, especially after Shepherd had fought to make her comeback. Perhaps we did see an underlying killer instinct from Shepherd and Nicoson, but this is the highest level of junior golf. Frankly, I don’t expect to see a caddie-player team too interested in giving second chances and looking the other way if a rule was conspicuously violated.
Those who call Shepherd a poor sport for what went down at the 19th should read Nicoson’s account carefully in this article by Golfweek’s Beth Ann Nichols. Shepherd both admitted that she would have given the putt to Moon if given the chance, and tried to reverse the quick call. After Moon’s fate was sealed, Shepherd sought her out in the locker room to make things right.
Will this follow Shepherd through the rest of her junior career and into college golf? Probably not. More likely, she’ll be remembered for putting this behind her and beating Jennifer Chang, 3 and 2, in the scheduled 36-hole final despite the heat she was under the night before. I’d take a mentally tough player like that on my team any day.