fb-pixel Skip to main content

US Open debacle was utterly unfair and avoidable

<?EM-dummyText [Drophead goes here] ?>

Dustin Johnson conferred with a rules official on the controversial fifth hole, but he wasn’t notified until the 12th that he might be subject to a penalty.John Minchillo

Is the US Golf Association developing some trust issues?

Back in November, the governing body announced that nine- or 18-hole scores recorded by a golfer playing as a single could no longer be submitted for handicap purposes. The reaction by many — What, you don't trust us? — didn't sway the USGA. Even if you follow every rule faithfully — no mulligans, no gimmes, play the ball down — the USGA still says you can't enter a solo score. But hey, let's grow the game!

The latest outcry, from Sunday's final round of the US Open, speaks to an incident that reflects either the USGA's lack of awareness or its unapologetic pomposity. It might not be the latter, because the USGA apologized Monday, its executive director saying, "Clearly, we made a big bogey."


Of the many bogeys that were made at Oakmont Country Club during the 116th US Open, the costliest were made by the organization that runs the tournament. The USGA's decision to ultimately reverse a ruling made on the fifth hole involving Dustin Johnson was bad enough, especially when invoking the "more likely than not" standard that we've heard before in these parts. But the way everyone was left wondering for more than two hours what score Johnson indeed made on No. 5 was simply inexcusable, and jeopardized the integrity of the event.

Honor, trust, integrity. The USGA didn't act with any of the attributes it points to when describing the game. If it intends to remain the steward of golf, the USGA might need to convince fans and players that it deserves the respect that comes with the title. Because, blue coats, respect is best when it's earned.

Johnson was the first to realize that his ball moved slightly as he was getting ready to putt on the fifth green during the final round. He made the right call: He waved over the group's rules official, who asked Johnson if he had grounded his putter, which would mean a one-shot penalty. Johnson said he had not. The rules official agreed — he trusted that the truth was being told, an important part of golf since it was first played — and no penalty was assessed.


But when Johnson reached the 12th tee, he was notified by the USGA that an infraction may have taken place, and he might be penalized one shot, after all. They'd wait until after play was completed.

Someone else, obviously, did not trust that Johnson was telling the truth, even though the clearest video replay was inconclusive at best, and exonerated Johnson in the eyes of his PGA Tour peers who chimed in on Twitter.

Surely, the USGA was implying, it was Johnson who caused the ball to move, even though it was difficult to see on replay. It certainly wasn't the greens stimping at 14½, a speed embraced by the USGA, and fast enough that the slightest breeze can make a golf ball oscillate. Try it. Place a ball on a countertop and turn on a blow dryer. The ball will move.

I can only assume that playing in a US Open is stressful enough. The mental grind of a course set up by the USGA to test (or embarrass, it's been argued) the world's best players is unmatched. The physical strain some faced last week — because of Thursday's rain, some had to play 36 holes in a day — only added to it.


On top of that, add the confusion caused by the USGA, leaving Johnson dangling in the wind from the 12th hole on, and how a decision it hadn't made might yet affect the leaderboard, and ultimately the winner. Doesn't it affect how those trying to win — Johnson, Shane Lowry, Scott Piercy, Sergio Garcia, Branden Grace — might play the last few holes? Do any of them take a chance (or not take one) because of a ruling that may or may not be made? Can you think of any other sport that operates this way?

Simply unfair, and entirely avoidable.

This wasn't Johnson's first dance with a rules official. Maybe what happened at Whistling Straits in 2010 gave him perspective on how to handle the situation, because he didn't say anything or indicate with his body language that he was getting a raw deal. Instead, everyone else was saying it for him.

In its statement Monday, the USGA said, "Upon reflection, we regret the distraction caused by our decision to wait until the end of the round to decide the ruling."

How about addressing the role of video replay used in golf tournaments? If this is the second group of the day, not the second-last, it's likely not being shown on television. A conversation takes place, a ruling is made, play continues. If a rules official didn't have a clean look and needs the input of the player in question or someone else in the group before making a decision, request it, and trust that the people playing golf will play it the right way. That their word can be trusted.


Johnson saved the USGA's hide when he won by four shots. Or three, after he was officially dinged the penalty stroke. A day later, after an avalanche of admonishment, and it being a much easier road to take because Johnson won fair and square despite the travesty, the USGA issued a statement that sounded every bit like it wanted to take a mulligan.

It's an admirable step. But don't forget: That score can't be submitted for handicap purposes.

Michael Whitmer can be reached at mwhitmer@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.