Sport Golf

Monday 11 December 2017

Too arrogant to learn lessons

A great wrong was done to the game of golf last week, and the USGA has plenty of form in this field

Dustin Johnson with the trophy. Photo: AP
Dustin Johnson with the trophy. Photo: AP

Dermot Gilleece

It wasn't their finest hour, or two hours, or even three. Still, through their ham-fisted handling of Dustin Johnson's moving-ball incident at Oakmont last Sunday, the US Golf Association may have unwittingly made a crucial contribution to the future of Major championship golf.

We can take it that officials of the Royal and Ancient, PGA of America and Augusta National noted with some alarm the possible consequences for competitors and spectators, especially as the 116th US Open approached its climax.

Where the USGA are concerned, however, their recurring incompetence is such that it's hard to imagine them learning anything from this latest fiasco.

"Every year it seems an official has a brain fart," was the colourful observation of former Masters champion Craig Stadler regarding the USGA's handling of the 2004 US Open at Shinnecock Hills. That was when they rendered the state of the green on the short seventh hole so severe that Stadler's son Kevin was two feet from the hole in two - and made a triple-bogey six.

The USGA's response on the final day of their blue riband event was to commence watering this particular green, after two pairings had already gone through. In fact they watered it after each subsequent pairing, but not before three triple-bogeys and a bogey had been carded. And this from an organisation committed to protecting the integrity of the game!

"They lied," said American Jerry Kelly, who rejected the USGA's claim that instructions not to roll the seventh green had been ignored. In fact the course superintendent was reported as saying: "They told me to roll it."

Then there was the mess they made of preparing Chambers Bay for last year's event, causing the greens to be seriously sub-standard by championship week. All of which reflected most unfairly on Ireland's John Clarkin, whose company, Turfgrass Consultancy, were the agronomists on the project.

I'm reminded of the 1993 US Open at Baltusrol, when the media hotel was in Newark, some distance from the course. On the Monday morning of championship week, I took my place alongside British colleagues on a shuttle bus bound for Baltusrol, from outside the hotel.

This was part of a fleet of vehicles, organised by the USGA in their home state of New Jersey. In the event, we were sitting in the shuttle for several minutes before the driver eventually piped up: "Does anybody know where the golf course is?" Whereupon celebrated English scribe Peter Dobereiner worked out a route from a map he happened to have, thereby saving the day.

"That's USGA organisation for you," somebody else remarked. It was a line I would be reminded of on more than a few occasions over subsequent decades.

And when problems arise, it's sometimes difficult to be sympathetic towards a body with the pomposity to have as its stated US Open objective - "We're not trying to embarrass the best players in the game; we're trying to identify them."

Now we have Oakmont. And you can imagine officials rubbing their hands at the severity of Sunday's conditions, with greens running at around 15 on the Stimpmeter. Small wonder that balls at rest needed precious little to set them in motion.

One of the most interesting aspects of the Johnson situation was that the walking official assigned to his pairing with Lee Westwood happened to be Mark Newell, chairman of the USGA rules committee. No novice there. When he was called by the player, however, he neglected to ask the crucial question: "Did you cause the ball to move?"

Instead, we had Johnson effectively taking control of the situation by claiming that while the ball moved, he hadn't grounded his putter. This was corroborated by Westwood. So, the only point at issue, as far as the player was concerned, was the grounding of the putter at address. And Newell went along with this.

The USGA official then instructed Johnson to play the ball as it lay, which was tantamount to stating there was no penalty. It also meant that when Newell's rules colleagues later decided that Johnson was, in fact, guilty of causing the ball to move, they were powerless to impose the mandatory two-stroke penalty for playing the ball from a wrong place, which he did by failing to replace it in its original position.

All of this happened on the fifth hole, but it was close to two hours later before Johnson was informed on the 12th tee that he could be liable to penalty. And the same information about Johnson was conveyed to the other leading players, including Shane Lowry.

Meanwhile, play continued. Which was where the USGA's actions had the potential for serious disturbance from 40,000 spectators who were learning about the situation on social media. As it happened, Johnson finished brilliantly to win by four strokes before the penalty was imposed, thereby saving the USGA from grave embarrassment or even worse.

It doesn't bear thinking about what might have happened if his birdie on the 72nd had actually been for victory, or to get into a play-off. Imagine spectators being informed minutes later about the imposition of a one-stroke penalty for something that had happened as far back as the fifth!

Even allowing for the broad scope of today's technology, the prudent decision would have been to accept the verdict of their rules chief, Newell, and not revisit the issue, irrespective of what became evident in a re-run of the videotape.

Instead, we had an attempt at providing the sort of clarity which has been such a boon to decision-making in important rugby fixtures, without the facility of a ready-made break in play and of keeping spectators informed through images on giant screens.

A possible solution might be a mobile TV monitor on which the incident could be demonstrated to a player, so explaining the reason behind an impending penalty. In fairness to players and spectators, it would be employed as quickly as possible after an incident, certainly not at the end of play, as happened last Sunday.

To my knowledge, no such devices were available to the USGA. So, before embarking on the action they decided upon, the whole process should have been thought through to a conclusion. Had they done so, they couldn't possibly have seen equity in their actions.

What Johnson was subjected to amounted to nothing short of a public exercise in mental and emotional cruelty.

Jack Nicklaus, who lent his name to the victory medal he later hung around Johnson's neck, has since expressed the view that the USGA had, indeed, been "very unfair" to their latest champion. "In my opinion, golf is a game of honour," said the Bear. "That's what the USGA believes in, and that's what most of the players believe in."

Nicklaus added: "How's he (Johnson) supposed to know what caused it to move? You've got greens out there with spike marks and pitches. The ball can move at any time." Indeed.

A great wrong was done last Sunday, not just to a fine champion, but to the game of golf in general. Having dug a fairly sizeable hole for themselves, the USGA had the arrogance to call in a veritable range of earthmoving equipment. It is to be hoped that when they meet with their brethren from the R&A at Royal Troon next month, some valuable insight will be forthcoming. Though one is tempted to wonder if the USGA possess the necessary humility to learn.

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