USGA ruling on Dustin Johnson at U.S. Open muddies water for future

OAKMONT, PA - JUNE 19: Dustin Johnson of the United States chats with a rules official behind the 16th green during the final round of the U.S. Open at Oakmont Country Club on June 19, 2016 in Oakmont, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Andrew Redington/Getty Images)

USGA ruling on Dustin Johnson at U.S. Open muddies water for future

PGA Tour

USGA ruling on Dustin Johnson at U.S. Open muddies water for future

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OAKMONT, Pa – By now the world knows that Dustin Johnson won the 116th U.S. Open at Oakmont Country Club.

Finally he broke through from a 0 for 28 drought that included various heartaches, some self-imposed and some just bad luck along the way.

The win would not be without its difficulties, but no one expected a three-act Shakespearian play, that would make even the Bard turn in his grave.

ACT ONE

Dustin Johnson was on the 5th green trying to make a 6-foot putt for par. He took two or three practice strokes and then went to address the ball, but never soled the club behind the ball before it moved slightly.

Johnson stepped back and called one of the two rules officials following the group to notify him the ball moved.

“I called him over and told him what happened,” Johnsons said of the initial discussion with the official. “Lee (Westwood) was standing right there. He saw it. So we both agreed that I didn’t cause the ball to move. So I just played on from there with no penalty.”

Rule 18-2 of the Rules of Golf addresses this issue specifically.

If a player or caddie causes a ball to move that’s at rest, the player incurs a one-stroke penalty.

The rule was amended at the beginning of this year.

Under the old rule if the ball moved for any reason (i.e. wind) or another outside agency, when a player addressed the ball, the movement was deemed to be caused by the player and a one-shot penalty was assessed.

Addressing the ball is when the player soles their club on the ground behind the ball.

In this particular situation, Johnson never addressed the ball, only made practice strokes to the side of the ball and was in the process of addressing the ball when it moved.

“I was pretty sure he hadn’t caused it to move,” Westwood said after the round. “You can see the TV pictures sees the side of the ball and the ball moves and the greens are running at 16 on the Stimpmeter, they put that pin in a stupid place, as it stands, so, occasionally the ball is going to move.”

ACT TWO

When Johnson arrived on the 12th tee, he was met by USGA officials, Jeff Hall, Director of Rules and Open Championship for the USGA and Thomas Pagel, Senior Director, Rules of Golf and Amateur Status.

For the first time it became clear that there was a problem with the ruling on the 5th hole.

“We told him that what we saw was a concern, but we also asked him a couple of questions,” Hall said. “Was there something else that could have caused the ball to move?

As we had that discussion (with Johnson), it became very apparent that we weren’t going to get to a resolution there.”

Johnson was adamant that he had not grounded or addressed the club behind the ball, which the USGA was not contending he had. Clearly, Johnson was thinking about the administration of the old rule, under the new rule addressing the ball and then it subsequently moves could be a factor, but the act in and of itself does not create a rules violation.

In fact, Romain Wattel had that exact issue earlier in the day when he had addressed the ball and he was over the putt in the address position and after approximately six seconds the ball moved. In that scenario, the USGA deemed no penalty.

But Johnson’s issue was different according to the USGA, after video review they clearly believed that Johnson’s actions on the green had caused the ball to move.

“In Dustin’s case, he did ground his putter near the ball on two occasions” during the practice strokes, and it was immediately after — or shortly after, he grounded his putter the second time that the ball moved,” Pagel said of his review of the video.

In weighing the evidence, the interpretation of this rule tells us it’s not free of doubt. It’s not going to be 100 percent clear, yes, the player caused the ball to move, but that’s not the standard we’re dealing with. We’re dealing with the standard what is the cause of the ball’s movement? If it’s more likely than not what was the cause of the ball movement? If you think in percentage terms, 51 percent chance or greater that the player caused the ball to move.”

The presumption of the evidence standard that Pagel outlined seems to make the administration of the rule much more difficult and very subjective for a game that is trying to simplify the rules of golf.

Once the news of Johnson’s rules embroil surfaced on the Fox telecast of the U.S. Open, the Twitter sphere lit up like a Christmas tree, all favorable to Johnson and against the USGA.

If that was not enough, 18 time major winner Jack Nicklaus was on the grounds on Sunday.

“When you have a situation where the official is there – I was listening on the radio coming to the golf course – the official says, did you cause that ball to move? and he says no, then that should be the end of the story,” Nicklaus said. “Then he said, well, what caused it to move – how is he supposed to know what caused it to move? You have greens out here with spike marks, pitches, so on and so forth. The ball can move any time. I thought that should have been the end of the story.”

Johnson would later say the meeting on the 12th hole was much ado about nothing and he was focused on one shot at a time.

ACT THREE

Johnson made a birdie and a bogey over the next seven holes and comfortably went on to win by four shots, but the meeting at scoring was yet to take place.

It would be a moot point on what would end up being a one-shot penalty after the USGA tried to get Johnson to admit to causing the ball to move using the video as its strongest argument.

With Johnson adamant that he didn’t cause the ball to move, the USGA decided they had to act and penalize Johnson a stroke and instead of winning by four, the winning margin would be three.

“Watching the video, I still don’t think I caused the ball to move, but the USGA, they said I did,” Johnson said with the U.S. Open trophy sitting to his left. “So with the rule that — I don’t even understand the rule, but I got a penalty. It didn’t matter at the end of the day. That’s it.”

Unfortunately, the ruling by the USGA has muddied the waters going forward.

If two players and a rules official decide on something at the moment, it’s clear it can be overturned, which makes all rulings suspect.

Also the ruling made by the USGA could only have come with video evidence. In a friendly game at the club or in a U.S. Open Sectional qualifier, where video equipment is not available, Johnson would never have been penalized in the same circumstances.

The rule is a good one, not allowing a player to be penalized when a ball moves by outside forces.

The implementation of the rule seems to have everyone questioning the process.

Johnson was under a severe disadvantage not knowing if he would be penalized or not.

If the USGA so fervently believed that Johnson had caused the ball to move, they should have penalized him on the 12th hole and been done with it.

Instead they created a drama that would rival any of the plays on Broadway.

“They have now got a rule that nobody knows the rule and it’s open to so much interpretation it’s ridiculous,” Westwood said. “It’s a stupid rule that can be interpreted like one person says one thing another person says another.”

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