Call it the year of unintended consequences. Upon further review, 2010 should add a stroke, and maybe a shower, as we quickly and sadly descend into the realm of the rules wonks, blue-blazered types who nitpick actions without the slightest interest in intent or consequences or common sense.
On consecutive weekends Dustin Johnson and Juli Inkster suffered at the hands of golf’s blind justice. Some feel we should find those responsible for such arcane rules and throttle them with one of those weights Inkster placed on her golf club to stay loose at last week’s Safeway Classic.
The crowds that surrounded Whistling Straits’ 18th hole, many of whom were standing in the same scruffy wasteland that ultimately cost Johnson his first major sure thought so, chanting, “Let. Him. Play.” as the tape was reviewed and the infamous eraser turned “Glory’s Last Shot' into a reason to head for last call.
There’s not enough sugar in Willy Wonka’s land of freaks to make all this medicine go down.
Earlier this week we spoke with Kerry Haigh, the PGA of America’s managing director of tournaments. Normally Haigh is a relaxed, confident fellow with a sneaky sense of humor, but there was a detached strain in his English voice as we cleared up yet another potential rules infraction.
Even those who live by the Rules of Golf struggled with Johnson’s plight.
“That could have easily been the USGA. It was kind of a perfect storm,” said Mike Davis, the U.S. Golf Association’s senior director of rules and competitions.
What has transpired over the last fortnight was largely a one-sided fight, void of anything even resembling a winner. Nothing good came from any of this, certainly not for Johnson or Inkster. Yet before we start burning rule books and governing tournaments based on straw polls, let’s consider the alternative.
Golf tore a rotator cuff dolling out gratuitous kudos after Brian Davis flagged himself for a rules violation earlier this year at Harbour Town. Golf, the purest announced, is above the type of dishonesty and moral flexibility that plagues other sports. Yet now some of those same purists go weak-kneed at the sight of Johnson adding two or Inkster heading for player parking slump-shouldered and smoldering.
We can’t have it both ways.
The alternative to golf’s rule book can be found in this morning’s headlines:
Roger Clemens was indicted this week on charges of perjury – the NFL’s Roger Goodell has extended his title to commissioner/parole officer. Chad Ochocinco was fined $25k for tweeting during a preseason NFL game – as if that’s the worst thing the project formerly known as Chad Johnson could get dinged for (And let’s hope for Stewart Cink or Rickie Fowler’s sake that PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem doesn’t come down with a similar aversion to social media).
Rules are the backbone of our sport, whether they’re of the Royal & Ancient variety, like Johnson’s run-in at Whistling Straits and Inkster's swing weight, or the administrative type like Wednesday’s pro-am snafu that sent Jim Furyk to an early Barclays exit.
Were Johnson and Furyk trying to gain a competitive advantage? Of course not. But you don’t have to like the rules to acknowledge their place in the game. The simple truth is 95 percent of the golf public doesn’t even understand most of them anyway.
Johnson, the man who paid the ultimate price, knows the rules, if not the scruffy outline of a bunker-turned-sandbox. At 26 years old he also knows a frenzied mob when he sees one.
“I'm pretty sure I'm very good with the rules of the game. And there's nothing that really stands out that's a bad rule or something I don’t understand,” he said on Tuesday.
For those who clamor for clarity know this: Neither Johnson nor Inkster nor Furyk made excuses or asked for special dispensation.
“The rules are rules,” Furyk said flatly at Ridgewood.
And the rules are the firewall that separates golf from the win-at-all-costs mentality that fuels deviant behavior in other sports.
Yet instead of appreciating the sometimes-convoluted essence of the game, those with short-term memories and overactive imaginations search for scapegoats and play the blame game.
It wasn’t Johnson’s fault, it was his caddie Bobby Brown or the walking rules official David Price that blew it. Furyk was late because his caddie, Mike “Fluff” Cowan, didn’t set a second alarm for his man. Or worse, they are bad rules that should have been ignored.
The entire conversation reeks of self entitlement and a lack of personal responsibility, a concept neither Johnson nor Furyk have any interest in.
For those inclined to cherry pick the rules based on the urgency of now consider the alternative: In college athletics it’s called a lack of institutional control. Or, if you’re searching for a shorthand explanation, just call it the NFL.