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Dustin Johnson Let The USGA Off The Hook

Michael Madrid-USA TODAY Sports

The USGA’s “amateur hour” decision-making reveals a deeper crisis for golf.

Sunday was a pretty monumental day in TV history. Considering that Game 7 of the NBA Finals and the Game of Thrones, um, thing (sorry, I don’t watch GoT) had everyone’s evenings fully occupied, it was pretty easy for the US Open to get lost in an ocean of televised entertainment.

You probably didn’t even watch the golf tournament, did you? Here’s what you missed: Dustin Johnson won the whole darned thing, overcoming a four-stroke deficit to Shane Lowry at the start of the final round. There was some drama, though, to say the least, but first we need to set it up with some context.

This was Johnson’s first major victory, and boy had he paid his dues. Johnson had finished in the top ten at a major tournament 11 times before he finally pulled off the victory, including five of his last seven tries, making him one of the best players ever to have never won a major—until Sunday, that is.

Among the most memorable of the close calls were the 2015 US Open, where Johnson three-putted from 12 feet on the final hole to lose by one, and the 2010 PGA Championship, where an officiating gaffe cost him a shot at the title.

Back in 2010, Dustin Johnson was part of the new generation of golfers who were supposed to dominate the world of golf for years to come. With his unsurpassed power and athleticism, Johnson was a sure-fire lock to win multiple major championships, even if he never did learn how to putt.

The then 26-year-old Johnson was in second place headed into the final round at Whistling Straits in Haven, Wisconsin. Johnson blasted his way into the lead with birdies on the 16th and 17th holes. Needing only a par to secure victory, Johnson drove his tee shot into the spectators well to the right of the fairway. His ball wound up in a sandy patch among the weeds.

From his frying pan of a lie, Johnson went straight into the fire: his approach went deep into the thick grass short of the green. An improbable escape left Johnson with a seven-foot putt for the win. As would become his trademark, Johnson’s putting abandoned him. Johnson’s putt didn’t even touch the hole, leaving him with a bogey and three-way tie for first.

Or so we all thought.

As he walked disappointedly off the 18th green towards the players’ tent to sign his scorecard, Johnson was immediately confronted by a PGA official, who informed him that he had grounded his club in a sand trap, which is a violation of Rule 13-4 and two stroke penalty.

“What bunker?”

It turns out, according to a “local rule” (i.e., a rule specific to one course) at Whistling Straits, that sandy patch that Johnson hit out of was technically considered a bunker—yes, the one with all the weeds and that the fans had been stomping through all week.

Johnson didn’t even need to see the video replay to confirm what the official had told him: he knew he grounded his club. He just didn’t realize it was a bunker!

The grounding of his club cost Johnson two strokes, which left him with a triple bogey on the final hole, putting him in a tie for fifth place. The playoff proceeded without Johnson, during which Martin Kaymer defeated Bubba Watson in three dramatic holes, but the story of the tournament was Johnson.

He obviously violated the rules—there is no debating that—but many feel that he didn’t deserve such a cruel fate. This is golf, after all.

“It never crossed my mind that I was in a sand trap.”

It certainly never crossed most peoples’ minds. It never crossed the mind of the broadcasters, either, as none of them mentioned the remote possibility that Johnson could have broken a rule.

Golf is a weird sport. It’s a ‘gentleman’s game,’ one that is as much about honor and respect as it is about competition. The Rules of Golf, a book published jointly by the United States States Golf Association (USGA) and Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews (R&A), always includes the following quote on the inside cover:

“Play the ball as it lies, play the course as you find it, and if you cannot do either, do what is fair. But to do what is fair, you need to know the Rules of Golf.”

In 2010, the decision on Dustin Johnson called the “fairness” of the local rules into question. If Johnson did not know he was in a bunker, if he could not have reasonably deduced that it was a bunker by the way it was being treated by the fans, if he did not intentionally violate any rules, and if he did not gain any advantage by his violation, is it fair to give him such a harsh penalty?

This was in the back of all our minds this past Sunday. As Shane Lowry, the leader after the first three rounds, came back to the pack, Johnson slowly and steadily worked his way into the lead.

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Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Other than Lowry, none of the big names threatened Johnson’s lead. Jason Day made a run up the leaderboard, but it was clear that he had too much of a deficit to make up. Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth were nowhere to be found.

Finally! This would be his year. If he could just hold off Lowry, Johnson would have his first major victory.

And then? Well, déjà vu.

A man, clearly an official of some sort, said something to Johnson when he got the to 12th tee box. Johnson said something back. We—along with the broadcast team—wondered what was up.

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Michael Madrid-USA TODAY Sports

Within a few minutes, we had our answer. The man who had been taking to Johnson was now sitting there in the broadcast booth, explaining what, in fact, was up.

This man had a name, I’m sure, but to us he was merely That Idiot Who Was Ruining Everything. He told us about some violation that Johnson might have committed back on the fifth hole, which was, like, two hours ago.

Fox showed us video of what he was talking about.

As Johnson was lining up his putt on the fifth hole, his ball moved ever so slightly. He immediately called over a rules official, pointed at the ball, and explained what happened. The official appeared to tell him to put the ball back where it was and proceed as if nothing had happened. No penalty.

It was obvious to anyone with eyes that Johnson never touched the ball—it just rolled one sixteenth of a revolution all, as a ball is wont to do on greens as fast as these.

In fact, the greens at Oakmont had been triple cut and double rolled that day, leaving the competitors playing on the fastest greens they’d see all year. A gnat’s sneeze could have rolled the ball a couple of feet.

“We asked him, ‘Is there some other reason that the ball could have moved?’ And he didn’t necessarily state another reason but he said, ‘I don’t believe I caused the ball to move.’”

There were a million explanations for what could have caused the ball to move. Why Johnson should have to provide one is beyond me, but if he says he didn’t cause the ball to move, and there is no video evidence that unambiguously indicts him, shouldn’t that be the end of the story?

Apparently not.

“We wanted to make sure we showed Dustin—give him the opportunity to look at it when he was finished—but we put him on notice that, based on what we saw, the actions could very well lead to a penalty stroke so that he can play the last six holes with that possibility so that he’s fully informed.”

Translation: the official thinks it’s Johnson’s fault the ball moved, but he wants Johnson to confess. Johnson refused, so now they’re going to wait until the end of the round to show him the video and make him confess then.

Translation of the translation: the official is going to pray that Johnson bails out the USGA by winning by so much that it’s not “their fault” he lost.

Implication of the translation of the translation: we have to sit here not knowing whether it’s a penalty, so we don’t actually know what his score is.

We spent the rest of the broadcast listening to things like, “And Lowry sinks a birdie putt to cut Johnson’s lead to two… or maybe three, we don’t actually know.”

“We think it’s only fair that… we notify Dustin so that, he can adjust his strategy accordingly and also give him every opportunity to see what we saw at the end of the round.”

There’s that “fairness” thing again.

To FOX’s credit, they nailed the coverage. Within minutes, they had actually shown those tweets on air. Joe Buck pushed the aforementioned official and asked a lot of the questions that we were wondering at home.

Sitting next to Buck were Paul Azinger and Brad Faxon, two former players who rounded out the broadcast team. They were equally flabbergasted by the decision, and they let their frustrations be known:

“Can you imagine this happening in any other major sport? Imagine watching the Super Bowl without knowing the score.”

Well, the tournament continued, awkwardly and ridiculously, while everybody and their mother rooted on Dustin Johnson, wanting him to win by a million and show the USGA who’s boss.

Johnson did just that, winning by three (or four?) and taking that $1,800,000 first-place prize home to his fiancée Paulina Gretzky and their 18-month-old son. Everybody went home happy, and in the end even the bumbling USGA officials couldn’t ruin Johnson’s day.

A one stroke penalty was, in fact, levied on Johnson’s final score, a decision that was disagreed with by even more big names, including Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus. 

The USGA apologized on Monday for how they handled the situation, but they did not admit any error in assessing Johnson the penalty stroke.

“This created unnecessary ambiguity for Dustin and the other players, as well as spectators on site, and those watching and listening on television and digital channels.

“Our officials reviewed the video of Dustin on the fifth green and determined that based on the weight of the evidence, it was more likely than not that Dustin caused his ball to move

“We will assess our procedures for handling video review, the timing of such, and our communication with players to make sure that when confronted with such a situation again, we will have a better process,”

They need to do more than that. The USGA and other governing bodies of golf have a huge problem on their hands, and this officiating catastrophe is merely a symptom of a much larger underlying golfing paradox.

Golf tied itself into a knot with its stupid, conflicting philosophies. Golf is game of respect, sure, we get that. Players are supposed to officiate themselves: violations are self-reported, and penalties are self-imposed.

That’s why the USGA was waiting until after the round to come to a decision; they wanted Johnson to come to that conclusion himself, as he’d done in 2010.

He didn’t, though. He said he did nothing wrong. Now you’ve got the golfing powers that be trying to remain committed to their philosophy of respect while simultaneously maintaining ‘fairness,’ which, in this case, they decided meant imposing a penalty.

But imposing a penalty without the admission of guilt from Johnson means that the USGA is effectively accusing Johnson of lying or cheating.

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Michael Madrid-USA TODAY Sports

You can’t do both, golf. You have to pick one. You can’t preach respect one minute and accuse a player of lying the next. You can’t praise the old-timey virtues of this ancient game one minute and use video replay to overturn an official’s ruling the next.

What are you, golf? Are you a recreational activity, where everyone smiles cordially and calls one another ‘old chap’? Or are you a sport, where if ya ain’t cheatin’, ya ain’t tryin’? Make up your mind.

Golf has an image problem, to say the least. Golf has always been the sport of the rich white guys, and it still holds tightly to all the bigotry, racism, sexism, and classism that comes with that crowd. 

Tiger may have been seen as golf’s savior, the guy who was going to bring the sport to the minorities, but he did little to change golf’s demographics. And neither will Jason Day, Rory McIlroy, or any of the rest of today’s stars even if they don’t necessarily fit the golfer stereotype.

The only thing that will improve golf’s image is a complete attitude overhaul.

In order for golf to be a sport that is played by people from all walks of life, it has to be the kind of sport that is enjoyable to people from all walks of life—not just to pedants, sadists, masochists, or anyone else who takes pleasure in rules, pain, or suffering.

Maybe golf could start by taking a lesson from the NBA. What were the stories from Game 7? Kyrie’s game winner, the Splash Brothers’ struggles, Draymond’s huge game, LeBron’s triple double and chase-down block, etc.

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Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Nobody was talking about the officials, and nobody was talking about some ridiculous video review. The story was the players, not the rules.

There is hope: golf has the potential to be just as entertaining—and just as sport-like—as any of the other major sports. Sadly, golf is at its best only once a year, when the players take the spotlight and everything else fades to the background.

No, I’m not talking about the Master’s. The best tournament of the year is always, without question, the Ryder Cup (or the Presidents Cup).

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Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

On September 30 of this year when the Ryder Cup kicks off at Hazeltine in Chaska, MN, everybody will be reminded of how fun golf is. Lunatic fans will scream and scream for the team they’ve supported since birth, watching bitter rivals go head to head, mano y mano.

Perhaps golf isn’t so different from the NBA after all. At least, it doesn’t have to be. It can be fun—it’s a shame, though, that it’s not this fun all the time.

Hey, golf. We need more of this:

Edited by Julian Boireau, David Kaptzan.

As of June 2016, among golfers who have never won a major, who has the most top-five finishes at major championships?
Created 6/24/16
  1. Sergio Garcia
  2. Matt Kuchar
  3. Steve Stricker
  4. Lee Westwood
As of 2015, when was last year in which all the winners of all four of golf's majors were all first-time major champions?
Created 6/24/16
  1. 1971
  2. 1996
  3. 2003
  4. 2013

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