Blog 348, 6/21/16 - Just How Many Bullets Did the USGA Dodge?

The USGA's Jeff Hall was strongly criticized for the rules decision that bought havoc to the final round of the US Open.
Every business, society, and organization has one. In Britain the guilty party is known as a ‘jobsworth’, and the internet suggests the closest American equivalent is a ‘stickler’. The Urban Dictionary defines such an individual, rather crudely of course, as ‘a low ranking official who follows their instructions and procedure to the letter, often just to piss you off and to make them feel important.’
After reading tens of thousands of words and watching dozens of videos detailing what actually happened during Sunday’s catastrophic end to the 116th US Open Championship, I couldn’t help thinking the term applied to the USGA Rules officials - Jeff Hall and Thomas Pagel - who deemed Dustin Johnson to have been responsible for his ball moving a dimple or two on the fifth green just before he addressed it. 
Maybe that’s a little unfair. For starters, neither Hall nor Pagel is a low-ranking official. Hall is the USGA's Managing Director, Rules and Open Championships, and has been at Far Hills for over 25 years. Pagel, meanwhile, is the Senior Director, Rules of Golf and Amateur Status, and has been with the USGA since 2011. They surely felt they were just doing their job and, in all fairness, probably didn’t do it just to (excuse the language) piss off Johnson, the rest of the field, and the several million people watching around the world. And, what’s more, they did have the guts to face some pretty vexed analysts in both the Fox and Golf Channel studios.
But here’s where the description does fit rather well. Rule 34-2 in the official Rules of Golf (a book one assumes Pagel had a large hand in writing) states: “If a referee has been appointed by the Committee, his decision is final.” It’s one of the shortest, clearest, and most precise rules in a book full of often long-winded, and sometimes very complicated rules. There are no notes or exceptions, and there can be no possible misunderstanding. The referee’s decision is final. If you do like a little extra verbiage, 34-2/2 states the player is “absolved from penalty” if the referee’s decision is given in error.  
johnson 5th green oakmont
The moment Johnson's ball moved.
Rule 34-3 begins “In the absence of a referee…” at which point you stop reading because, in this instance, there obviously was no absence of a referee. There was a referee – Mark Newell, whose USGA bio states he is a Harvard Law grad who served as a law clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. from 1982 to 1983 and who, in 2016, is Chair of the Rules of Golf Committee.
Anyway, after grounding his putter to the side of the ball (the video suggests he did so very lightly), Johnson moved the head behind it at which point the ball rolled from one dimple to the next. Importantly though, he hadn’t grounded the club behind the ball, and the ball clearly moved backwards, at least away from the spot on which Johnson’s putter had contacted the ground following his practice stroke.
Johnson backed off immediately and called in Newell (a former law clerk to a member of the U.S. Supreme Court and current Chair of the Rules of Golf Committee remember) and playing partner Lee Westwood, both of whom accepted Johnson’s explanation of what happened without hesitation. Newell, whose decision should have been final, of course, decided there should be no penalty. 
About ninety minutes later, however, Hall and Pagel approached Johnson on the 12th tee to inform him they had reviewed the video and weren’t comfortable with what they saw. They suspected Johnson’s action at the side of the ball was more than likely to have caused it to move, and they would possibly be assessing a one-shot penalty. But they would give Johnson the chance to watch the video himself at the end of the round, and the opportunity to explain himself...again. They believed Johnson had breached Rule 18-2(i-3) causing a ball at rest to move, despite the fact he insisted he hadn’t, Westwood had backed him up, and Newell had already determined Johnson wasn't at fault.
Chaos ensued, well, golf chaos - not a full-on street riot or anything. Now Johnson didn’t know if he had a one or two-shot lead. And the chasing pack likewise didn’t know where they stood. Everyone’s strategy was affected – should they lay up, go for it, trundle a lag putt up close to the hole or commit to a bolder line?
The players were slowly informed the USGA had spoken with Johnson, but couldn't know if the penalty would be given or not. What had been an exciting finale turned into a horribly confusing passage of play where nobody knew their position. The championship had been roaring toward a thrilling conclusion, but this was a mighty wallop to the lungs that sucked all the air out of it. Even watching on TV, it was apparent the galleries became muted. Paul Azinger, Brad Faxon, and Joe Buck in the Fox booth dealt with the situation as best they could, keeping viewers informed and not holding back in criticizing the organization with whom their bosses had signed a 12-year, $1.2billion deal in August 2013.
Of course, the shot penalty which the USGA did finally inflict on Johnson didn’t matter because the South Carolinian played so well down the stretch he was far enough in front for it not to matter.
The USGA took a few shots most notably from Fox and the Golf Channel’s Brandel Chamblee, but really it had dodged a bullet. Actually, they had dodged the ten thousand bullets, spears, and arrows the media would not have been slow to fire had things ended differently.
The possible scenarios that might have resulted had Johnson and close pursuers Shane Lowry and Scott Piercy ended tied do not bear thinking about. Just imagine though if Johnson had lost another major because of a less than clear-cut rules incident, like he had at the 2010 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits.
If you’re in a charitable mood, you might give credit to the USGA for being so fastidious and eager to apply its own rules in this situation. You might applaud its dedication to ensuring all players play by the same rules, and protecting the rest of the field. But, and it is a considerable ‘but’, would it not have been more sensible to apply its own rule – 34-2 – and be content to let Newell’s decision stand?
During that hastily arranged committee meeting, or while heading to the 12th tee to confront Johnson, might it not have been prudent for Hall or Pagel to say “Look, Newell has already given his ruling; Johnson insists he didn’t cause the ball to move; his playing partner agrees with him; it’s unlikely any of the contenders are going to see the recording later, have a problem with the decision, and kick up a fuss; we’re desperately trying to attract more people to the game and portray golf as a fun, healthy, and exciting activity and this would likely put that plan back 100 years; and perhaps most importantly, we can’t categorically prove Johnson caused the ball to move. Perhaps it would be best for the tournament, and indeed the future of the game, if we just put a lid on it. No one need know we even reviewed the tape.”
oakmont greens frustration shane lowry
There would have been a lot more of this were it not for the rain.
It was an unfortunate sequence of events that should never have been set in motion. But Johnson’s magnificent final round wasn’t the only thing that let the USGA off the hook.
Over two inches of rain on Thursday and Thursday night made Oakmont, billed as the toughest US Open venue ever, considerably softer than what the USGA had planned. It effectively made the narrow fairways a little wider, and the hardwood greens a little softer and thus easier to hold. When Henry Fownes created Oakmont in 1903, he built sloping, contoured, tantalizing greens that contributed to the immense challenge. But while they certainly would have been tough, they would also have been manageable given the relatively slow green speeds of the day.
When modern greenkeeping techniques combine with Oakmont superintendent John Zimmer’s skill and the USGA's lust for extremely fast greens, it results in surfaces that measure an absurd 14.5-15ft on Edward Stimpson’s 1936 invention of a green-speed-measuring device - the stimpmeter. The slopes are magnified, and very good approach shots that miss their mark by a foot or two can catch even a minor gradient and ease their way 40ft or more from the hole. The magnificent Oakmont therefore fails to reward good shots - a measure of a great course. Players often end up in positions that do not reflect the quality of their shot. When that happens once or twice, you hold your hands up, shout “GOLF, Aaarrgghh!”, grit your teeth, and move on. When it happens more often than not, it gets silly.
How dare the USGA make so great and historic a course as Oakmont look silly.
A rather regrettable speech by Diana Murphy.
Lastly, Diana Murphy’s prize-giving ceremony performance was less than distinguished. Murphy’s appointment as President of the USGA in February – she is the organization’s second woman President (Judy Bell preceded her by 20 years) - was generally regarded as a sound move at a time when golf is aiming to appear more inclusive. That’s not to say Murphy was a token female plant, however. She has an impressive resume, and is a firm supporter of grass roots golf. But she stumbled her way through a rather awkward speech Sunday evening by which time, luckily, most observers were too confused and exhausted to care. It brought to a close a rather dark day in the USGA’s history.
One hopes the organization’s rather dubious string of moves before, during, and after this year’s US Open Championship will be forgotten in time, and that the enduring memory will be Dustin Johnson’s crowning birdie at the 72nd hole which put the stamp on a really brilliant display of golf.


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