Los Angeles (AFP) - LPGA Tour rules officials defended their decision to hit Lexi Thompson with a four-stroke penalty on Sunday, a move that denied the American victory in the first major of the season at the Ana Inspiration.
Thompson was left distraught after being informed following the 12th hole of the final round -- when she led by three -- that she was to be penalized four strokes for an incident in Saturday's third round spotted by a television viewer.
Although Thompson fought back to play the remaining six holes in two under, she lost an agonizing sudden death playoff to South Korea's Ryu So-Yeon at Mission Hills Country Club in Rancho Mirage, California.
But as Ryu celebrated with the traditional leap into Poppie's Bond off the 18th green, the golf world was left in uproar by the decision that effectively robbed Thompson of the title.
Tiger Woods led a chorus of incredulity across the golf world as the controversy unfolded.
"Viewers at home should not be officials wearing stripes," the 14-time major champion tweeted as the final round reached its climax.
"Lexi lost lead on Sunday due to something that happened Saturday. Am I getting that right?," golfer Hunter Mahan chimed. "Common sense just thrown right out the window!!"
The LPGA stood by their decision however, revealing that in an email from a television viewer, Thompson had been spotted improperly replacing her ball after putting out on the 17th on Saturday.
Her third round 67 was changed to a 71 as a result -- a two-shot penalty for the infraction, and two shots for signing an incorrect scorecard.
LPGA Tour rules official Sue Witters, who had informed a stunned Thompson of the penalty after the 12th, said she understood the outrage of fans but insisted no other option was available.
"Sure, but what's my choice? A violation in the rules and then it would be the opposite story: Oh, they knew, why didn't they do anything about it," Witters said.
"I can't go to bed tonight knowing that I let a rule slide. You know, it's a hard thing to do, and it made me sick to be honest with you."
LPGA executive Heather Daly Donofrio also defended the decision of rules officials.
"When you have a situation like this, it's extremely difficult," Donofrio said.
"And it's extremely upsetting for everybody, and this is the last thing that the rules team wants to do. But their job is to enforce the rules of the game, regardless of who the player is and what the situation is and what the championship is.
"And it's not always well received when the rules official do their jobs."
Thompson could be seen choking back tears on the course after being informed of the penalty.
"Is this a joke?" she said as she strode toward the 13th tee. "That's just ridiculous."
However she regained her composure to hit a birdie on 13 to earn a share of the lead.
"I just tried to gather myself before I made that tee shot, and made a great putt there," said Thompson, who was trying add a second ANA Inspiration title to the one she captured in 2014.
The galleries meanwhile roared support, chanting and cheering for Thompson as she completed her round.
"They really got me through the whole round," she said. "I felt strong through the finish."
A birdie at 15 moved her back into the lead, but she bogeyed 16. She had a chance for an eagle to win it at the par-five 18th.
Playing partner Suzann Pettersen, who finished a stroke back on 275 along with South Korean Park In-Bee and Australian Minjee Lee, was impressed with Thompson's resilience.
"For her to come back with those birdies shows the character she is," Pettersen said. "Just true class from Lexi."