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2016 U.S. Open gives USGA a serious black eye

USGA flag

The USGA did not have a good week at the 2016 U.S. Open — the body’s flagship event.

Eventual champion Dustin Johnson was notified of a possible one-stroke penalty (that was eventually enforced) in the middle of his round. This created not one, but two massive wrongs. One, the penalty should never have been enforced. Two, if the penalty was going to be enforced, the USGA should have at least the guts to enforce it on the spot. It failed on both counts.

The controversy started on the fifth green when Johnson’s ball fractionally moved. D.J. stated that nothing he did caused the movement. His caddie, playing partner Lee Westwood and Westwood’s caddie all agreed. The rules official with the group told Johnson to play the ball from where it came to rest. He holed the putt and that was that.

That was that until a few holes later, when another rules official approached Johnson and told him that the ruling was under review. In a nutshell, the USGA seemed to believe that Johnson did cause the ball to move, but they wanted to give him a chance to see the blown up replay. If he could still make a case that something else caused it to move, maybe the penalty wouldn’t be enforced. If he could not, the penalty would be applied.

So, if Johnson didn’t cause the ball to move, what did?

Before the tournament even started, Rickie Fowler posted a video showing just how fast Oakmont’s greens were playing. As hard as this may be for the fine folks at the USGA to believe, when greens are set up at borderline unfair speeds, balls that are resting may occasionally move a fraction of an inch.

One man who seemed to agree was Bubba Watson’s caddie, Ted Scott. Since he’s a caddie, Scott’s opinion on what the greens were like should have been taken seriously.

Nice try, Mr. Scott. But that argument used something that the USGA just does not tolerate — logic.

In a break from the norm, social media was not terribly divided on the issue. The overwhelming majority of people seemed to favor Johnson, or at least not favor the USGA. One such man was fellow golfer Brandt Snedeker, who stated that had Johnson done anything to cause the ball to move, it would not have gone backwards. Logic really is a funny thing.

The rule itself is flawed. Tournament runner up Shane Lowry had previously been penalized for a similar infraction, only he acknowledged that he caused the ball to move. But in causing the ball to move, Lowry gained no advantage, unfair or otherwise. He also didn’t hit a bad shot that deserved to be penalized. Without either one of those things taking place, a penalty is not equitable.

If you really choose to disagree with that, feel free. The rule itself is only part of the problem. The way it was applied was simply appalling.

Do us all a favor and fast forward to the fall and imagine yourself watching the seventh game of the World Series. A run is scored in the second inning on a close play at the plate. Naturally, the manager of the scored against team wants to review the play.

Shouldn’t that review take place immediately?  It would be idiotic if the umpires decided to review the play, but only after the game. Both teams need to know the score. If the scored against team ended up winning in a blowout anyway, they may then be willing to forego the review process, concede the run, and get to the celebration. But even in that situation, the application would be no less stupid.

With the “blowout” win, Johnson knew that the penalty made no difference. Why spend even five seconds reviewing the film when you just won your first major and should be celebrating with your loved ones?

D.J.’s blowout win indeed made the issue less immediately relevant. Still, it needs to be addressed as soon as is humanly possible.

This maybe/maybe not penalty loomed over a good portion of Sunday’s round. The broadcasters mentioned the potential penalty every couple of minutes, and really, they had to. Any viewer who may have just been getting home from a Father’s Day lunch or dinner needed to know that the leaderboard was even more subject to change than normal.

The possible penalty also lingered as the proverbial “elephant in the room” for not only Johnson, but the entire field. Who knows how that impacted what shots were hit? Every shot in golf is a decision. Driver or iron? Go for the green or lay up? Flag hunt or play to the center of the green? To adequately make those decisions, a golfer needs to know where he stands.

Nobody knew what Johnson’s final score was until after the tournament was over. That’s unacceptable.

Remember, while Johnson won by a few shots, he wasn’t dominant like Tiger Woods at Pebble Beach or Rory McIlroy at Congressional. The back nine was hardly a victory march. The margin of victory was only a few shots, and it didn’t become clear that it would be even that big until Johnson’s approach shot on the 18th hole.

To his credit, Shane Lowry said that the possible penalty didn’t impact his decisions. Maybe that’s the truth. Maybe he was just taking the high road. We’ll never know, and even if that is the case, we’ll never know if that changed the way that all of the contenders (including Johnson) played.

Johnson’s margin of victory was the only good thing that happened to the USGA on Sunday. As Christine Brennan of USA Today so accurately stated, he saved the “USGA from embarrassment” by not only winning, but by posting a big enough margin of victory that his one shot penalty made no difference.

The USGA struck out at the 2016 U.S. Open. They got away with the strikeout because Dustin Johnson was in a position to take a one-stroke penalty with nothing more than maybe a slight shrug and roll of the eyes. But that had everything to do with the play of Johnson and the people around him and absolutely nothing nothing to do with anything that the USGA did right. Quite simply, the USGA did nothing right.

The USGA simply caught a break. Now it’s on them to review not just that rule, but all rules, to see if the punishments really are equitable. At the very least, they need to put people in place who have the guts to make decisions on the spot.

At the 2016 U.S. Open, they failed on both counts and got lucky. If the mistakes aren’t fixed by next year when the best in the world are teeing up at Erin Hills for the 2017 U.S. Open, the USGA’s luck may run out.