Monday, June 20, 2016

How the USGA Almost Screwed the Pooch

Picture this scene.  On a cold January Sunday evening, the Pittsburgh Steelers are playing the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game.  In the second quarter, the Steelers score a touchdown, but Bill Belichick challenges the play.  The zebras go to the hood, examine the play, and deny Belichick's challenge.  Touchdown Steelers.  Then, midway trough the fourth quarter, with the Steelers clinging to three point lead, with nothing less than  a trip to the Super Bowl at stake, the officials come to Mike Tomlin and say something like, "We've been thinking about that touchdown, and maybe Belichick was right, so we may have to take that touchdown off the board, but we'll let you know after the final gun and the game is over."

You would say that such a scenario is ridiculous, and you would be absolutely correct, but, essentially, that is exactly what the USGA did to Dustin Johnson in the final round of the US Open at Oakmont yesterday.  If you missed it, here is what happened:

  • While getting ready to putt on the fifth green, Johnson saw his ball move.  At that point, he had not "soled his putter" behind the ball, a critical point.
  • Johnson stopped and called over a USGA rules official to confer.  The official asked him if he, Johnson, had "caused the ball to move".
  • Johnson said that no, he had not.
  • Rules official said, okay, you're good to go, no penalty.
  • On the twelfth hole, another USGA functionary approached Johnson and said that they were taking another look at what happened on the fifth green, that they might assess a one stroke penalty on Johnson, and that they would let him know at the completion of the round.
Now, before the golf rules nerds gang up on me, I know that the rules of golf are sacrosanct, and that the integrity of the golfers, who call penalties themselves, are at the very heart of the game, so don't tell me about Bobby Jones calling a penalty on himself in the woods that cost him a US Open title. I get it.

However, in this case Johnson did nothing wrong.  If he said that he didn't cause the ball to move, then the bedrock integrity that the game, and the USGA, prides itself, must be taken at it's word.  Also, and here is the key, JOHNSON CONFERRED WITH A RULES OFFICIAL AT THE TIME who said No Penalty.  What is the point of having rules officials on the course if the governing body doesn't back them up, and if they don't, the time to "get it right" is at the time of the alleged infraction, not three hours later after the round has been completed.

In the end, it didn't matter, but is that really the case?  Knowing exactly how many stokes you are in the lead, or how many you are behind, certainly affects your on course strategy and how you play the game.  Credit Dustin Johnson for having the fortitude to play through with the possibility of a penalty awaiting him.  On thing for sure, though, is no one was happier that Johnson ended up finishing four strokes, later reduced to three strokes, clear of the field, than the USGA itself.  Had that one shot penalty forced a tie that would have resulted in a playoff  that would have resulted in someone else winning the Open, this would have haunted the USGA for years and years.  As it is, the entire final two plus hours of the telecast, which should have been a celebration of the USGA's showcase event at a venerable golf course, that was producing an exciting and attractive young champion was overshadowed by the Keystone Kops methods of the stuff-shirted Blue Blazers from Far Hills, NJ.

Enough of that.  Let's just salute the new Champion, Dustin Johnson.  It has been quite a journey for him to get to this point, and that second shot onto the eighteenth green was one for the ages.  Well played, Dustin Johnson!


  1. I knew he would receive a penalty from the onset. I don't know why that first rules official did not know it. No outside agency caused the ball to move. Just glad it all worked out and he won. Not a pretty situation

    1. Dede, do you think that the USGA will sanction that rules official in some way? Like major league baseball or the NFL does with their officials?