The bullets the USGA dodged at Oakmont
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The bullets the USGA dodged at Oakmont

Credit: Keith Leventhal/Golf News Net, Cannot Be Used Without Permission

Every business, society and organization has one.

In Great 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 U.S. Open Championship, I couldn’t help thinking the term applied fairly well to 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 his ball.

Calling them sticklers is a little unfair.

For starters, neither Hall nor Pagel is a low-ranking official. Hall is the USGA’s Managing Director, Rules & 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 or the millions of 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 Rules of Golf, updated in 2016, 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, sometimes very complicated and obscure rules. There are no notes or exceptions. 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.

Rule 34-3 begins “In the absence of a referee…” at which point you stop reading because there was no absence of a referee. There was a referee -- Mark Newell, whose USGA bio says 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. Johnson backed off immediately and called in Newell and playing partner Lee Westwood, both of whom accepted Johnson’s explanation of what happened without hesitation. Newell, whose decision should have been final, decided there should be no penalty.

About 90 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 Johnson insisted he hadn’t, Westwood had backed him up, and Newell had already made what should have been the decision.

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: hould they lay up, go for it, trundle a lag putt up close to the hole or commit to a bolder line?

The players were informed the USGA had spoken with Johnson, but didn’t know if the penalty would be given or not. What had been an exciting finale turned into a horribly confusing passage of play when nobody knew their position. The championship was roaring toward a thrilling conclusion, but had been whacked hard in the lungs, sucking all the air out of it. Even watching on TV, it was apparent the galleries became muted. In the Fox booth, Paul Azinger, Brad Faxon and Joe Buck 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, $1.2 billion deal in August 2013.

Of course, the one-shot penalty which the USGA finally decided to 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 the USGA 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 considering. 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 agreed with him; it’s unlikely any of the contenders are going to see the recording later, disagree 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.”

But Johnson’s magnificent final round wasn’t the only thing that let the USGA off the hook. Nearly 3 inches of rain on Wednesday night, Thursday and Thursday night made Oakmont, billed as the toughest U.S. 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. They were tough certainly, but manageable given the relatively slow green speeds of the day.

With modern greenkeeping techniques combined with superintendent John Zimmer’s skill able to produce surfaces that measure 14.5-15ft on Edward Stimpson’s 1936 invention of a green-speed-measuring device, the Stimpmeter, the slopes are magnified. Good approach shots that miss their mark by a foot or two, and catch even a minor decline, often ease their way 40 feet or more from the hole. The magnificent Oakmont, therefore, fails to reward good shots - a measure of a great course. Players 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 “Aaarrgghh GOLF!,” grit your teeth and move on. When it happens more often than not, it gets silly.

One hopes the organization’s rather dubious string of moves before, during and after this year’s U.S. 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.

About the author


Tony Dear

A former golf correspondent for the New York Sun, and a senior editor on Today's Golfer magazine in the UK, Dear works for a number of titles on both sides of the Pond, and has written five books on the game, the last two of which he thinks are actually pretty good. He is the golf coach of the Bellingham HS boy's team in Bellingham, Wash., and is looking forward to another cold, rainy, spring season.