Date: June 23, 2016
Author: Tom Fee

The two sides of the DJ saga

If I was to recall all of the dumb purchases in my life, my brand new Ultra High Def TV would feature fairly high on the list. But I couldn’t deny my excitement as I settled in for the final round of the US Open, ready to give my new gadget a proper run and make the most of the latest advancements in golf broadcasting — driven primarily by the USGA’s partnership with Fox in the US.

Ironically I’d end up spending most of the round glued to my phone, paying more attention to the drama unfolding off the course via social media.

Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock, you’ll be full bottle on the Dustin Johnson ball moving saga that started on the fifth green and remained unresolved beyond the 18th.

Yesterday the USGA issued an apology on their website for being a distraction during the final round — but they made no apology for the final decision to penalise Johnson.

It’s easy for us to postulate about what the USGA should have done that afternoon, but if you can find a perfect solution to performing mid-round video rules reviews you’ll find more than a handful of golf bodies who will want to pick your brain.

If the USGA decided to immediately penalise Johnson based on the footage without giving him the chance to defend himself, they would be doing so without being able to get Johnson’s perspective of what we’re seeing on screen — it would also be in contravention of the Rule which demands “all information be considered”.

If the USGA stopped play to drive Johnson to the clubhouse to review the footage, we would have bemoaned the untimely delay as Johnson, his playing partner and the group behind go cold in the waiting process.

If the USGA decided to just say nothing and spring a surprise ruling on us after the 18th hole, everyone would have been mortified. Imagine celebrating one champion after the final putt but crowing somebody else at presentations?

So it’s great that the USGA acknowledged the criticism and apologised for their actions — but what else could they do?

Ok, ok. I can hear you screaming at your screen. They could have not made the ruling in the first place, right? Hasn’t Johnson suffered enough at the hands of the Rules of Golf?

If there was ever going to be a maybe we should let this one slide moment in golf, this would be it. Combine the emotional link between Johnson and US Open final rounds, the logistical nightmare in reviewing the footage, and throw in Rule 18-2 which is open to individual interpretation – it’s easy to just put it all in the too hard basket and move on.

But that’s not how the Rules of Golf are meant to work, and it’s definitely not how the USGA works. Looking at the Rule it’s easy to appreciate how difficult it is to make a black and white decision over something that is very much in the grey area.

For all of the trouble it caused, Rule 18-2 is deceivingly simple.

If a player causes a ball at rest to move, the player incurs a penalty of one stroke.

But how do we know if the player caused it to move? The first step is to ask the player, and Johnson was simultaneously certain he did not cause the ball to move, but equally uncertain about what did make it move.

While golf is an honest game, Decision 18-2/0.5 says that you need to dig deeper than the player’s word, and this gave the USGA has no choice but to review the footage.

All relevant information must be considered and the weight of the evidence must be evaluated.

Decision 18-2/0.5 is a long one thanks to the numerous examples it gives illustrating how to weigh up such evidence. I’ve hand-picked two that show a penalty and no penalty call. Which ones seem the most relevant to Johnson? Well, a little from Column A, but maybe a little bit more from Column B.

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In Johnson’s favour we heard many argue that he never technically addressed the ball — and while it would be a stretch to say he was on a slope, he is putting on Oakmont greens which are harder and slicker than any in golf!

But on the other hand, the wording in Column B is very careful to suggest that the player was making an obvious attempt to avoid inadvertently moving the ball during the pre-shot routine. This is the kind of “proof” The Rules require to remove guilt from the player, and it’s safe to say that Johnson did little to show concern for his ball’s precarious lie — especially when he grounded his putter adjacent to the ball, only for the ball to move seconds later.

I’d be more than happy to sit on the fence here, but unfortunately the USGA is not afforded that luxury. If you give them a do-over it’s hard see what they could do differently.

I would say the outrage at the USGA on their handling of the situation is misplaced, but I’d empathise with any golfer who feels that the punishment of Rule 18-2 outweighs the crime of being unlucky. The greens are hard enough as it is.

But if we’re to criticise the Rule the heat goes straight back on the USGA whose logo sits proudly on the cover of The Rules of Golf, and they did address this sentiment in their statement.

“We also understand that some people may disagree with Rule 18-2 itself. While we respect the viewpoints of those who disagree, our Committee made a careful and collective judgment in its pursuit of a fair competition played under the Rules of Golf.”

An unpopular Rule doesn’t give the USGA the power to administer it incorrectly. Like our parents would say – two wrongs don’t make a right. In the end we can take solace that Johnson won, while we witnessed one of the most compelling final rounds of a major tournament.

If 2014’s bunker ruling, 2015’s three putt and 2016’s ruling drama wasn’t enough, there was another curveball coming. As Johnson was about to hit his approach into 18, the cameraman’s phone went off with almost comic timing.

Jack Nicklaus never had to deal with this! First its camera replays, and now it’s the cameraman’s phone. It allowed Johnson a chance to add his voice to the cacophony of people who were screaming for Johnson to catch a break.

“Really?” exclaimed Johnson, while staring at the camera and into the souls of the viewers at home.

He’d had enough – and he responded with the shot of his life.

You just couldn’t script it. Johnson was well and truly put through the ringer, and we were all thrilled to see him finally came out on top.