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A tap on the shoulder and a few specks of sand.
It was another big year for the USGA but not in the way the organization had hoped, as both of its two biggest events were marred by curious rules infractions.
While Dustin Johnson won the U.S. Open, the tournament’s defining moment wasn’t the striped 6-iron he sent to the 72nd green. Instead it was the walking rules official carefully approaching Johnson to inform him that a stroke he maybe, possibly, probably made during the final round was officially under review.
Had he caused the ball to move ever so slightly on the fifth green? Was it an action that fell under the purview of Rule 18-2? No one seemed to know for sure, and what played out was a surreal scene as a major championship concluded without the field being certain of where the leader stood.
Social media erupted, from fans and players alike, as Johnson attempted to capture the most difficult event on one of the hardest courses in the country with the specter of a possible penalty looming over his head. The USGA became the target of an avalanche of criticism while the tournament was still underway.
Johnson was eventually docked a stroke, trimming his winning margin from four strokes to three but ultimately not deciding the outcome of the tournament. That small saving grace prevented the situation from turning into an all-time blunder, but it was still proof that the USGA had focused on the letter of the law to the detriment of intent.
Officials stood by their strict interpretation of Johnson’s actions, but executive director Mike Davis ultimately termed their handling of the situation a “bad bogey.”
Things didn’t get much better a few weeks later at the U.S. Women’s Open, where a dramatic playoff between Brittany Lang and Anna Nordqvist was ultimately decided by a slow-motion replay that showed Nordqvist grazing some sand in her backswing while playing a fairway bunker shot.
Two major championships, two images of the USGA clinging to the rule book at a pivotal point in the proceedings. To make matters worse, USGA president Diana Murphy then awarded the trophy to “Bethany” Lang during an awkward post-round ceremony.
Granted, there was news beyond a pair of tournaments. When the calendar flipped to 2016, the golf world entered the post-anchoring era as players around the world were forced to ditch the long wands. Some like Adam Scott found quick success; others like Keegan Bradley are still hoping to find their footing. But the rule that the USGA ushered in a few years back appears to be here to stay.
The organization also faced criticism for its steadfast decision to hold next year’s U.S. Women’s Open at Trump National Bedminster, a choice that came under less scrutiny once Donald Trump won the presidential election.
But as the year wound down, the USGA showed signs of softening its arcane rule book in an effort to “simplify” the rules of golf for all who play. That included the introduction of a new local rule regarding players “accidentally” causing the ball to move on the green – essentially repealing the decision that nearly cost Johnson the trophy at Oakmont.
There was plenty of drama and certainly plenty of controversy. In other words, a typical year for the USGA.
June 19: Chamblee grills USGA officials
June 20: USGA's Davis regrets handling of DJ ruling
More USGA controversy
Nov. 30: Davis: 'Want to make rules easier to read and apply'
Dec. 8: USGA: No penalty for accidental ball movement