In wake of the Lexi Thompson debacle, one writer investigates ball-marking at the Masters

Friday April 7th, 2017
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AUGUSTA, Ga. — Walking the back nine on Thursday afternoon at the Masters, I saw some beautiful ball-marking. Tyrrell Hatton on 15 got right behind the ball and went for a catcher's squat. Nice move, especially for a Brit. Well played, T!

You never realize what a common thing ball-marking is in a round of golf until you start thinking about it. (Thanks, Lexi!) In a phenomenal putting round, a player is bound to do it at least 20 or so times, and in an ordinary putting round it could be more like 30.

We all know how it goes. Hit your ball on the green. Mark. Putt it to a yard. Mark. Two per green gets you to 36 in a hurry. We're talking about thousands of ball-markings, every single day.

You may have heard what Phil Mickelson said about it, in the wake of Lexi Thompson's messy marking last week at the ANA Inspiration, which resulted in a four-shot penalty. On Tuesday, Mickelson said, "I know a number of guys on Tour that are loose with how they mark the ball and have not been called on it. I mean, they'll move the ball two, three inches in front of their mark—and this is an intentional way to get it out of any type of impression. I think that kind of stuff needs to stop."

First-round leader Charley Hoffman prepares to mark his ball on Thursday at the Masters.
Getty Images

Amen, brother! Golf requires precision to insure that every player is playing by the same rules. Your ball is in bounds or it's out. You are in front of the tee marker or you aren't. After marking, you've returned your ball to its original position or you haven't.

Alex Noren, on the 10th green, one of the most difficult in golf, put down a mark right behind his ball, left it there while he lined up his putt, returned to the mark to methodically fine-tune the ball's position, lifted his mark and putted without haste from there. Nicely marked.

He was playing with Bernhard Langer, by the way, a very methodical marker. (A shocker, right?) But Langer, at 59 the oldest golfer in the field, has to be vigilant whenever he putts. He is still using the broomstick putter, perfectly legal, of course. But he has to make sure that his left hand has clearance from his chest when he strokes the ball. The days of anchoring are long over. Langer, by the way, fixed two ball marks in his line on his two putts on 10. You can fix ball marks. The etiquette of the game requires a player to consult with a playing partner to make sure it is a ball mark being fixed, and not some other imperfection.

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Lee Westwood on 11 had a gorgeous old-school marking. Left leg down, right leg up. Chris Wood on 12 did the exact same thing, in reverse. Nice job, fellas. Yuta Ideka had a variation of this on 13, using his putter as a stabilizing device. Classy.

Mackenzie Hughes, marking on 14, seemed to have both feet on the ground as he marked, a useful way to go through life and a nice way to mark, if you are limber enough. The most precise marking I saw was Hatton on 15, as if he were a wicket keeper in cricket. It was beautiful.

Henrik Stenson on 16 sort of half-shoved his mark behind the ball, which is fine as long as you don't move the ball as you are doing so. You just have to make sure that when you return the ball to the turf, that mark is again in the shade of your ball, and that is what Stenson seemed to do. Removing the coin from under the ball can be a delicate operation in those conditions, something like playing the game "Operation." (From Hasbro!) You don't want to make any contact with the ball during the marker removal.

 

On 17, I noted with interest, but without surprise, that Vijay Singh has a dripping-syrup marking method. He ambles to the ball slowly, lowers his arm slowly, puts the mark down carefully, and repeats the same process when he returns the ball. He was, like Hatton, straight behind the ball, which is the ideal way to do it. A side-marker, as Thompson showed last Saturday, is asking for trouble.

Marking purists do not like the poker chip as a ball marker. They are way too big and almost invite a player to move his ball forward in the marking process. Martin Kaymer uses a pretty big marker—a two-pound British coin. It's bigger than the U.S. quarter, but smaller than a poker chip. If that's how he marks all the time, it would be hard to imagine Mickelson or anybody else every worrying about the German as a ball marker.

In a post-round interview, Kaymer explained his technique. "You put your mark down behind your ball," he said. And then, of course, you return it to the same spot.

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