OAKMONT, Pa. – Dustin Johnson won the U.S. Open Sunday in a stylistic tour de force.
He put on one of the great displays of driving in the history of this championship, blasting his way through Oakmont’s formidable defenses and maybe even more impressively through all the doubts and uncertainties that his past failures on major championship stages created.
Johnson won spectacularly, and it’s just a shame we had to watch his virtuoso performance through the fog of angst and confusion the USGA created in the middle of the round.
It’s frustrating we couldn’t fully appreciate just how masterful Johnson’s triumph was without the USGA clouding our view in a way that threatened to compromise the integrity of the competition.
That’s the shame of how the final round unfolded.
The USGA allowed the final seven holes to be played with the competitors, gallery and television audience uncertain the scoreboard was correct. Based on a video review, the rules committee decided to wait until after the round to rule on whether Johnson should be assessed a one-stroke penalty for causing his ball to move over a putt in violation of Rule 18-2. The putt in question came back on the fifth green.
The Rules of Golf are devised to protect the integrity of the game, but this was a quintessential example of how the integrity of perfectly good rules can be undermined by the manner and timeliness of their enforcement.
The ancient game has a complicated problem in this age of video review and the ruling bodies need to think through a fix.
Before moving on with this point, let’s get this straight, Johnson’s triumph was not diminished by the near fiasco the USGA created. The fact that he was so undaunted through it all makes his performance all the more impressive. He deserves our highest praise.
The problem Sunday was video review and how it is used in golf to enforce the rules.
Video review helps other sports “get it right” in reviewing calls. Too often, video review makes golf feel like it’s “getting it wrong.” Never was that more the case than here at Oakmont.
After Johnson saw his ball move as he prepared to putt at the fifth green, he called in a referee.
Under the old Rule 18-2b, a player was automatically assessed a penalty if his ball moved after he addressed it. Under new Rule 18-2, the player is penalized one stroke only if facts show the player caused the ball to move.
Johnson noticed the movement after taking a couple practice swings to the side of the ball and soling his club. He noticed it move as he began to lift his putter behind the ball, but he did not believe he touched the ball or caused it to move. The referee he consulted found no cause to apply a penalty.
As Johnson played on, USGA managing director of rules and competition Jeff Hall and senior director of rules Thomas Pagel reviewed video of what happened.
“As a committee, when we viewed the tape, we looked at it and said `Given the timing of his actions, it was more likely than not that Dustin was the cause of the movement,” Pagel said.
The application of the new rule is complicated, but the short explanation is the committee doesn’t have to be 100 percent certain a player caused the ball to move. In fact, it merely needs “the weight of evidence” to indicate the player caused the ball to move.
The problem here isn’t really in the assessment of the penalty. It’s in the USGA going to Johnson at the 12th tee to discuss the issue but then leaving without a ruling.
“It was clear we needed a further conversation, and the 12th tee did not seem to be the right place for that,” Hall said.
So the USGA decided to wait for a more thorough review with Johnson after the round.
“We put him on notice that based on the action we saw, he could have caused the ball to move,” Hall said.
So Johnson played on knowing he could be assessed a one-shot penalty.
Pagel said the rules staff also then began informing other players on the course that they were “reviewing a situation” with Johnson “that could cause him a one-stroke penalty.” So as Johnson left the 12th tee, he wasn’t certain if he was 5 under or 4 under. He wasn’t certain if he was one shot ahead of Shane Lowry or tied for the lead. The rest of field wasn’t certain, either.
That matters immensely.
It matters in how Johnson plays strategically, in how those chasing him play. It matters in how aggressively or conservatively both he and his fellow competitors should play.
That’s where the integrity of the competition is impugned.
Imagine the Pittsburgh Steelers down the road from Oakmont driving for a late score not knowing if they need a touchdown or field goal to win because they’re not sure the scoreboard is right.
Imagine fans not knowing exactly what they’re cheering for.
“This isn’t right for anyone on the golf course,” Rory McIlroy tweeted. “If it was me, I wouldn’t hit another shot until this farce was rectified.”
Jordan Spieth was just as indignant.
“This is a joke,” he said.
After Johnson finished, the USGA did meet with him again and did decide to assess a one-stroke penalty. Johnson made sure it didn't matter building himself a cushion.
There’s no intent here to say the USGA rules staff wasn’t trying to do the most honorable thing.
“At the end of the day, it’s about getting it right,” Hall said.
But that’s the big problem for golf with video review.
If you wait too long to get it right, did you really get it right?
They don’t wait until the game’s over to review a call in the NFL or Major League Baseball or in the NBA. Golf’s different, but it’s not that different. The integrity of the game hangs in the balance when you wait until it’s too late to get a call right. Golf is too often too late when it comes to catching violations on video review.
It’s time to fix that so we can more fully appreciate the tour de force efforts of today’s best players.