Sergio was wrong, but Kuchar was wronger

It’s not easy to sympathize with Sergio Garcia, even if you really want to…and in 2019, you probably don’t. A career full of blundering self-sabotage has destroyed any lingering benefit of the doubt we might owe him, and his deeply humiliating episode in Saudi Arabia, where he purposefully damaged several greens in a sustained fit of rage, was the last straw for even the most forgiving souls. So when a controversy erupted at the WGC-Match Play on Saturday afternoon, and it involved several displays of petulance and plaintive rage from Garcia, there was no question that the first emerging narrative would be the Occam’s Razor version: This had to be the latest case of Sergio being Sergio. Simple.

And it’s true that he didn’t acquit himself well. This is not a defense of Sergio Garcia, who has slipped beyond defending, and whose reactive nature sparked the entire controversy in the first place. Instead, it’s meant to be a measure of who bears the greatest responsibility. In this case, I believe that’s Matt Kuchar, the man on the other side of the spat and someone whose own reputation has taken an enormous and probably permanent hit after he failed to tip his local caddie what many considered a fair wage following a win in Mexico last November.

Let’s start at the beginning—early in a quarterfinal match, with a putt to win the hole, Sergio did this:

In his frustration, he raked the ball, clearly assuming that the putt had been conceded. Crucially, he didn’t look at Kuchar for confirmation of this fact, and apparently Kuchar had not made a formal concession—even though, as he later said, he would have. Beyond the never-conceders like Jason Day, there’s no situation in professional match play where a gimme of that distance wouldn’t be conceded, and in fact even someone like Day routinely gives putts of that length.

By the letter of the law—and here’s where the most pedantic and officious pundits are supporting Kuchar—Sergio had lost the hole. You have to wait for a formal concession, and if you don’t, tough luck.

However, these things are not often terribly formal, and a situation like the one with Sergio raking his putt arises with some regularity. It’s my contention, and I think the contention of anyone being honest with themselves, that the vast majority of professional golfers would have moved on from the situation without a word. Or, at most, with a private word to the opponent.

Predictably, most of Kuchar and Garcia’s colleagues steered clear of the discussion, but others, like Chris Paisley, chimed in:

On the Golf Channel, Jaime Diaz argued on behalf of Sergio. He made one error of chronology that I think is very important—I’ll get to that in a moment—but I think his point about the “human transaction” is well-stated and worth watching:

As to that sequencing error—in this case, I think it’s absolutely critical to note that Matt Kuchar sought out the rules official himself. If Robby Ware, the official on site, had come to him first and asked whether he conceded the putt, there’s a better argument for Kuchar having to tell the truth, and the process playing out as it did. But that’s not the case, and I know this because Kuchar said so himself in his post-match remarks:

Q. Could you walk us through the situation on 7, what the ruling was and kind of what the fallout was after that?
MATT KUCHAR: I kind of made a mess of things with the hole. Ended up making about a 15-footer for a bogey. Sergio had about a 10-footer, I think, for par. I made my putt, walked to the back of the green. Sergio I saw missed it. And as I looked up again, I saw he had missed the next one. And I saw him off the green, I said, “Sergio, I didn’t say anything, I’m not sure how this works out.” I didn’t want that to be an issue. So I asked Robby Ware, I said, “Listen, I don’t know how to handle this, but I didn’t concede the putt, Sergio missed the putt.” Sergio said, totally his mistake. He knew he made a mistake. I said, I didn’t want that to be how a hole was won or lost. And he said, “Well, you can concede a hole.” I’m not sure I’m ready to concede a hole. And just the rule played out with Robby stating how the rule works. It’s not a — certainly I don’t use any gamesmanship, it’s not a match play tactic, it’s not anything. It was just one of those mistakes that Sergio made. 

So, in fact, it appears that all parties had moved on and walked off the green, and Robby Ware had no idea that anything controversial had happened. Matt Kuchar had to broach the topic himself, which means that he had every opportunity to say nothing.

Now, let me give you two scenarios, and you tell me which one feels more like justice:

1. Kuchar realizes that Sergio missed a putt that was not conceded, but he also knows that the putt was a gimme, and he would have conceded it literal seconds later. Deciding that it didn’t affect the match one way or another, and was just an unfortunate case of missed communication—that, indeed, nobody else is even considering the possibility of litigating what happened—he moves on with the match.

2. Kuchar realizes that Sergio missed a putt that was not conceded, but he also knows that putt was a gimme, and he would have conceded it literal seconds later. Knowing it didn’t affect the match in any way, he nevertheless brings it to the rule official’s attention, understanding from experience that it will cost Sergio the hole.

In my opinion, one of those scenarios adheres to a strict interpretation of the rules, but it’s not the one that is ultimately the most fair. And I agree with James Hahn that the TV announcers did a poor job of presenting the case:

In fact, the second scenario—the one that actually transpired—raises some other interesting questions about Kuchar’s objective. Did he really do it because of a deep devotion to the rules of golf, or, once he realized what Sergio had done, did he spot an opportunistic way to win a hole? And if he really felt badly afterward, why didn’t he balance the scales by conceding a hole?

At that point, it becomes a question of whether you trust Kuchar’s stated reasons for escalating the matter to Robby Ware. I do not, and that’s strictly my opinion. Your mileage may vary, etc. etc. But taken as a whole, this strikes me as a situation where a stringent observance of the rules was not the same as doing the right thing…where, in fact, the rules became a shield for the wrong outcome. Sergio’s lack of restraint hurt him once again, but it was Kuchar who turned an insignificant event into a controversy, and opened the door yet again to hard questions about his intent.

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