When a USGA official pulled Dustin Johnson aside on the 12th hole of the final round of the U.S. Open last month, the marquee player who had seen several majors slip from his grasp in cruel ways must have experienced a déjà vu sensation. Six years earlier, Johnson had lost a chance at the PGA Championship when he was penalized for grounding his club in a rugged area strewn with footprints that turned out to be a bunker. Now, at Oakmont, he was told that officials had reviewed the situation on the 5th green where Johnson’s ball had moved slightly as he was preparing to putt, and that that a 1-stroke penalty was being considered.
The conversation between the USGA and Johnson created a rules snafu that cast a pall of uncertainty over the remainder of the championship. At that point, Johnson and Shane Lowry were neck and neck, and other players were in contention. The problem was that no one knew whether the number posted next to Johnson’s name on the scoreboard was accurate – fairly important information for the competitors, not to mention the millions of fans watching the Fox broadcast.
On the 5th green, Johnson had taken his stance and taken a couple of practice swings during which his putter did not touch the ground, then moved his putter behind the ball – again without contacting the ground. He noticed his ball move slightly, backed away, and summoned an official. Johnson told the official he did not do anything to cause the ball the move; the official concurred and directed him to proceed to putt.
The situation highlighted a 2016 change to Rule 18-2. Formerly, under Rule 18-2b, a player was deemed to have caused a ball to move if it moved after address. That rule was considered overly punitive when balls moved on extremely fast and sloped greens, particularly in heavy winds. A 2012 revision added an exception if it was clear that some other factor, such as wind, caused a ball to move after address. However, the 2016 revisions eliminated Rule 18-2b altogether.
Under the revised rules, whenever a ball at rest moves, all of the facts and circumstances must be taken into account to determine whether it is “more likely than not” that the player caused the movement. Contrary to the opinions expressed by a number of players and commentators, the USGA was not bound by Johnson’s judgment, and was within its right to review the videotape. The USGA certainly was not blind to the fact that, in an earlier round, Lowry had called a penalty on himself in similar circumstances.
After reviewing videotape, USGA rules officials determined that, after taking the practice strokes, Johnson momentarily grounded his putter next to the ball, and concluded that such action likely caused the ball movement. When advised of this on the 12th hole, Johnson adhered to his position that he did not think he caused the ball to move.
At that point, the USGA had all the information it needed, and should have ruled that Johnson incurred a 1-stroke penalty. But instead, it deferred making a ruling, leaving players uncertain of Johnson’s score. The USGA’s explanation for the delay – that it wanted to discuss the matter with Johnson after the round – bordered on the absurd. The USGA official who appeared on the telecast all but admitted that they had made their decision; there was absolutely nothing to be gained from additional discussion.
When the 2016 rules revisions were announced, Thomas Pagel, Director of Rules of Golf and Amateur Status for the USGA, noted that the repeal of Rule 18-2b would eliminate some unfair penalties but also would create some uncertainty and put pressure on players and rules officials to make difficult judgments. His words rang prophetic at Oakmont. The specter of one rules official initially absolving the player, only to be overruled after a close examination of videotape which did not conclusively demonstrate that Johnson caused the ball movement, did not sit well with players and many members of the media. Furthermore, reports had surfaced at Oakmont that some greens were running at an unprecedented 15 on the Stimpmeter, and that players were seeing balls move on greens after they came to rest. Under these extreme circumstances, it is certainly possible that Johnson’s ball moved spontaneously.
The USGA was spared from catastrophe only because Lowry and other competitors faded down the stretch, and Johnson holed out on 18 with a birdie that gave him a 4-stroke lead – until the penalty reduced it to three strokes. Imagine if he had led by only a stroke or been tied, and lost the championship on account of the videotape review. Ghosts of Whistling Straits would have been swirling around the USGA tent. Would the rules officials have had the courage of their convictions to assess the penalty in that case? We’ll never know.
But even allowing the USGA the benefit of the doubt under the “more likely than not” standard, under which the imposition of a penalty does not have to be “free from doubt,” there was no excuse for deferring to make the call until after Johnson’s round and keeping him, and his competitors, in scoring limbo. As Bill Pennington of the New York Times aptly observed: “A scoreboard is not supposed to be just an estimation of who is leading and by how much.” Sunday at Oakmont will be remembered as Johnson’s long overdue breakthrough in adding a major title to his resume, but will not be remembered as the USGA’s finest day.
On the day after the championship, the USGA stated that it regretted the distraction caused by its decision to wait until the end or the round to decide on the ruling. The USGA admitted that its action created “unnecessary ambiguity” for Johnson, other players, and spectators, and indicated that it will review its procedures for the timing of video review and communication with players. Good idea.
However, the USGA did not back off its decision to impose the penalty, noting that the ball moved almost immediately after Johnson’s putter contacted the ground. Fine. But if they were so sure, they should have assessed the penalty immediately.WHAT'S YOUR REACTION?