USGA's O'Toole saved Yang from penalty at U.S. Am

Gunn Yang celebrates his 2-and-1 victory over Corey Conners in the 2014 U.S. Amateur final at Atlanta Athletic Club.

JOHNS CREEK, Ga. – After Gunn Yang had won the 114th U.S. Amateur, he was asked to identify the critical moment in his 2-and-1 victory over Corey Conners of Canada.

“The most important thing I think throughout the match play was the 11th hole, the par putt, right after the rain delay,” Yang said.

After a 97-minute suspension of play during the afternoon session, Yang yanked a pitching wedge from 140 yards into the left green side bunker. He scooped his third shot at the par 4 out of the sand but it squirted 15 feet past the hole.

“Luckily I made the putt. So I was able to, you know, go through the next hole with 1 up,” Yang said. “So that was pretty cool.”

What Yang failed to mention were the circumstances leading up to his clutch par save. After Yang went through his normal pre-putt routine and settled into his crouch, USGA president Tom O’Toole Jr., serving as referee for the match, rushed on to the green and interrupted Yang. Before he could putt, O’Toole instructed, Richard Grice, a 55-year-old lawyer and member at Atlanta Athletic Club who had volunteered to caddie for Yang in the championship, that he couldn’t stand behind his player while he was in the act of putting.

O’Toole recognized a clear violation of Rule 14-2b: A player must not make a stroke with his caddie, his partner or his partner’s caddie positioned on or close to an extension of the line of play or line of put behind the ball.

With a look of chagrin on his face, Grice moved several steps away from Yang's line. O’Toole apologized to Yang for the disruption and retreated to the edge of the green, near fellow USGA executive committee member Dan Burton, chair of the championship committee. “I’ve told this guy three times he can’t stand behind his player,” O’Toole harrumphed, once he was out of earshot of Yang.

Later, O’Toole would recount one of those earlier situations.

“I noticed it during the first 18 this morning when he pitched on the third or fourth hole,” O’Toole said. "(Grice) was slightly off (Yang’s line). It was close but I didn’t think it was a breach of the rule.”

Why is O’Toole’s decision to warn Grice rather than penalize him significant? Because the penalty for a breach of 14-2b is loss of hole in match play. If O’Toole chooses to lay down the letter of the law, Yang never holes that key par putt to halve the 29th hole of the match and they go to the next tee with the match all square. Who knows how Yang would’ve handled such adversity but it’s safe to say it would’ve changed the player-caddie dynamic between Yang and Grice.

“Our position is always to prevent a breach if we can. That’s a longstanding USGA philosophy,” O’Toole explained. “I know it was disruptive. (Yang) had to back away. It was a disturbing thing, but I didn’t have any other choice but to call him off that. We have an international audience watching and he’s in clear breach of 14-2.”

But having warned the caddie previously, should he have simply imposed the penalty, O’Toole was asked?

“I would’ve been uncomfortable with not trying to interrupt the putt and then say you’ve incurred the breach,” O’Toole said.

It is a moot point now, but a rather significant one at the time, and another reminder of how important it is to know the Rules of Golf.

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