Bring back the walking official.
On the list of world plights, the demotion of rules experts walking alongside each U.S. Open group barely registers on the spectrum. But in trying to avoid a repeat of various rules-related imbroglios, the U.S. Golf Association’s decision to re-assign officials to stationary hole duty may have set players up for embarrassment while taking a bit of joy away from career Rules of Golf devotees.
To recap: The USGA wheeled out changes at Erin Hills in hopes of eliminating recent on-course rules controversies that have chipped away at the organization’s credibility. The changes include special video tablets for the rules committee, on-course review stations and a designated chief referee. Most surprising: shifting volunteer officials from walking with groups to awkwardly located hole assignments.
The move ends a long tradition and perk for those who can actually tell you what prompted Decision 27-2a/1.5. For all their work studying the rules and scoring well on the rules exam, the best of the best used to enjoy inside-the-ropes U.S. Open access. On the weekend, USGA executive committee officers traditionally walked alongside the final group, which was never a problem until recent years when a few rules lightweights needed too much help with basic rulings. Ironically, last year’s Dustin Johnson rules flap involved one of the USGA’s brightest minds in Mark Newell, who also sat on the tournament rules committee.
“When it became apparent presidents of the USGA needed a rules observer and didn’t even know the basics, that’s when they should have made the move,” said a current volunteer official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment. “The timing this year looked terrible for Newell, who knows what he’s doing and handled last year correctly.”
When Johnson’s ball moved at Oakmont’s fifth green in 2016, Newell was consulted and did not determine the evidence was strong enough to penalize Johnson for causing the movement. The rules committee ultimately determined that video evidence suggested otherwise.
This year’s U.S. Open was the first in 26 years without a walking official assigned to each group. The concept began after former executive director David Fay officiated at the 1990 British Open. (The R&A continues to this day to send an official out with each group.) Fay returned from St. Andrews suggesting the USGA follow suit. Even though the USGA had been sending out an official with the last five groups since 1978, Fay’s mentor, P.J. Boatwright, had resisted sending an official with every group. The executive committee voted to have walking officials at Hazeltine for the 1991 U.S .
What motivated Fay’s thinking?
“You get invested in the group,” Fay said at Erin Hills, where he worked as Fox’s rules expert. “If there is an issue, the official is right there. You can help a player not do something stupid. And you get the best view of the action.”
Fay had no qualms with the change but could see from his Fox Sports perch what was apparent to anyone walking around Erin Hills: It’s not as enjoyable for the rules officials.
While Fay is correct that “you’re not running an event for officials,” there is something to be said for rewarding these devoted servants of the sport. Relegating them to sitting in the sun, wearing gaudy red caps and giving them fold-up chairs better suited for the Main Street parade does not help their credibility or allow them to easily help players. These lovers of the game work all sorts of less glamorous events, and the U.S. Open experience should be rewarding.
USGA senior managing director of championships and governance John Bodenhamer didn’t exactly sell this shift as progress for the players when announcing the change.
“You go back to 2008 at Torrey Pines and Mike (Davis, now the USGA executive director and CEO) and our president at the time, Jim Vernon, were with Tiger (Woods) and Rocco (Mediate) on that playoff. And on the first extra hole Rocco dropped it in the drop zone and he went to grab it. And Mike and Jim stopped him. That would have been an unfortunate way for the championship to end. That’s why we do it.”
That’s why we need to undo this change, pronto. Gwk
This year’s U.S. Open was the first in 26 years without a walking official assigned to each group. The concept began after former executive director David Fay officiated at the 1990 Open Championship. (The R&A continues to this day to send an official out with each group.) Fay, then reporting to executive director P.J. Boatwright, returned from St. Andrews suggesting the USGA follow suit.
Even though the USGA had sent out an official with the last five groups since 1978, Boatwright resisted until his passing in 1991. When Fay took the job, the executive committee voted to have walking officials at Hazeltine for the 1991 U.S Open.