What the USGA Got Wrong at Oakmont

The USGA has an important job in the U.S. Open of doling out penalties, at Oakmont this year I explain why they did a pretty awful job

Thrash TalkDustin Johnson is no rookie when it comes to penalties assessed in the final round of a major. Who can forget his famous bunker episode at the PGA Championship a few years ago? At that time, he merely missed out on a playoff, but the rule was clear and even he himself admitted he’d made a mistake. There is no question he grounded his club and no question he was in a bunker. It was really hard to tell it was a bunker – I know I had no idea – but many people did and it is his job to notice such things.

Fast forward to this year’s U.S. Open. He was Dustin again in a rules quandary. Did he in some way cause the ball to move during his practice stroke on the fourth green? This is the question that everyone is interested in answering. Now that the dust has settled a little on this issue we are starting to see that some mistakes were made and many – far more than I thought – professional golfers are not clear on the rules.

First things first: the immediate issue was how the USGA managed the situation once they knew it was a situation. The rules official who was so far away that he likely could not see anything took Dustin’s version of events, which basically amounted to “my putter was in the air and the ball moved. I never grounded my club.” If I did not have the benefit of replay and was 20-30 yards away from the actual action, I likely would have made the same judgement. Many feel the rules official is culpable and to some degree he is, but he is far away, has no benefit of replay and on some level has to take what the player says at face value. He cannot in that moment call the player a liar. It would escalate the situation to a boiling point in the fraction of a second and would not allow for the cooler heads to review and decide how and what kind of action is necessary.

But to then go to Dustin after he has now played six more holes, over an hour after the incident, and say “yeah, we looked at it and there might be a penalty” earns a tragically large black eye on the part of the USGA. Over an hour after looking at it, they should have known what their ruling was going to be. Assess the penalty or don’t. Don’t be wishy washy. The USGA’s argument was that they wanted to discuss it with the player. I am not buying this. They knew exactly what Dustin was going to say. They knew he would say the exact same thing he said to the rules official. So if they disagreed with his comments to the rules official, penalize him. I see now, that Mike Davis is saying this exact thing. Which is good, but too late. The U.S. Open was at stake and rules situations like this have happened numerous times, there is no excuse for them to get this wrong. Shame on them. This was a bungle, unquestionably.

Dustin Johnson

Lastly we come to question of was it a penalty at all? Many professionals on social media and most notably Brandel Chamblee have come out saying the USGA got the ruling wrong. I am mixed on this. It is true that Dustin is doing a whole lot of stuff really really close to the ball. His practice stroke is close, really close, then he does a mini sole of the club and then moves it behind the ball. Again, for my liking, he is too close to the ball. The greens were fast. Really fast. He is on a slope and the with fast greens I have seen the ball move before. So could it happen that he didn’t cause it to move? Yes. But the fact remains that he is really close to the ball with his pre-shot routine. Being that close to the ball brings into question if he was the culprit. So if I were the USGA, I would probably err on the side they did. Penalty.

Brandel argued that no player has ever caused the ball to move with a practice swing. I think he meant to say a professional golfer, who didn’t inadvertently touch the ball or something egregious, has never caused a ball to move. At least to his knowledge. This is not a good argument, the idea that it has never happened before as a reason it didn’t happen this time is complete nonsense. He also argued along with Frank Nobilo that the penalties doled out were not consistent across the entire tournament. I am also mixed on this. They may have a point on this, there were two other situations where the ball moved even after players had addressed them. Still the committee made a decision and we move on. This is an acceptable outcome in my opinion as long as the USGA stands behind their view of the rules, then we must accept the decisions made by the committee. They are the governing body, we need to have some judge to makes the final decision. If we let the decision be down to public opinion or social media we’ll never decide anything.

In the end, Dustin made the whole conversation moot. He played the best and deserved to walk away with the trophy. Nobody played as good as he did for all four rounds. Nobody hit as many fairways and greens, really nobody matched him shot for shot. So the outcome is as it should be. What I hope is learned from this event is when the decision is made by the tournament committee, that it is clearly, and immediately communicated to the player. Everyone in the field deserved that. Not only Dustin, but those who were around him, trying to win.

Photo credits: © David Cannon

4 thoughts on “What the USGA Got Wrong at Oakmont”

  1. As you know, I disagree with parts of what you’ve written.

    I think the initial Rules Official, Mark Newell, botched supremely. He did not gather information, he did not ask probing questions, he did not ask Dustin to show him what he was doing and when the ball moved, etc. Had the initial rules official done his duty, and assessed a penalty or not based on a full gathering of the facts, there would be some rules geeks discussing whether he got it right, but ultimately most would accept his decision and move on.

    Newell choked, and in doing so, set up the entire cascade of things that followed, none of which was good.

  2. Yes the rules are an a$$. However Johnson also benefitted from those same rules when he pulled one of his drives a long way left with the ball coming to rest in very deep, thick and heavy long grass.

    However in this case he could claim a TV tower was in his line of sight…was then allowed to take a drop, dropped said ball on a fairway and then proceeded to hit the ball directly over the TV tower that was obstructing his line of sight.

    Right there COULD very well have been the end of his US Open but in this instance the rules saved him.

    All Im saying is what is taken away with one hand is given back to you with the other.


  3. Erik makes a good point. But I’m not sure how much more “information” or “probing” was necessary. What did you do and what happened? Well, DJ did the same pre-stroke routine he’d done for every other putt, similar to what every other golfer had done throughout the entire tournament. ‘Well, I jumped near the ball, I played a game with myself and tried to see how close I could get my putter to the ball without moving it.” I mean come on. Sam Snead once said he wAs trying to mark his ball with a coin but the coin kept sliding off the green. They go and brag about how slick and fast their greens were, but then act astonished and concluded that DJ must’ve done something to cause the ball, sitting on an incline, to roll BACKWARDS while his putter was in no contact with the ball.
    Official: ‘ Did you do anything that could’ve moved it?”
    DJ: “No, I didn’t even ground my putter.”
    Official: ” Play on”
    Done. Over. No discussion. Period.

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