USGA’s Major Distraction

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OAKMONT, Pa.-Dustin Johnson has a history of dramatic-then-disappointing finishes in major professional golf championships, particularly in the U.S. Open.

In 2010, he led by three strokes entering the Open’s final round, shot an 82 and finished tied for eighth.

In the 2015 Open championship, Johnson missed a putt to win and a putt to tie and enter a playoff with Jordan Spieth. So he settled for a second-place finish.

Those are just his U.S. Open follies. There are more on the course AND off. I won’t go into deep detail here about his public relations battles with DUI and cocaine news headlines. A quick Internet search will locate those.

The drama he carried around Oakmont Country Club on Sunday afternoon was not due to his own actions. The United States Golf Association (USGA) manufactured the controversy this time around.

When Johnson was on the fifth green during the final round of the 2016 Open, his ball moved ever so slightly as he moved his club for practice strokes. On the Fox Sports TV broadcast zoom replay later, it seemed Johnson’s club did not contact the ball. And that’s what Johnson told a USGA rules official at the time. The official agreed, Johnson finished the hole penalty free and moved on in his round.

Seven holes (and nearly two hours) later, Johnson was informed by the USGA that his moving-ball incident would be reviewed immediately following the completion of his final round and that a stroke penalty could be assessed. Word of that plan reached the media, the TV broadcast, other golfers off the course, social media and then other golfers on the course.

It amounted to a major distraction for everyone. It was the topic of conversation in trending on Twitter. It had to be in Johnson’s head. And when word of the plans for review and possible penalty reached other golfers, it had to mess with the psyche of Johnson’s fellow U.S. Open competitors.

I always consider my dad a level-headed analyst of life’s situations, and he’s a big golf fan. So I texted him about the controversial scenario. (It is Father’s Day after all.) Here’s what he said in response to my question, “Should there be a penalty after the round?”

“No, should have been assessed before he started next hole or not at all”

I agree completely.

Imagine you make a mistake in any part of your life, you let someone know about your slip-up, you have a conversation about it, and an authority tells you they agree and allows you to continue with no consequences. Then, that authority comes back later and tells you there’s a chance you might be penalized in a way that could take something important away from you.

The USGA and its official should have spent more time trying to settle the issue with Johnson’s moving ball before play continued on that green. If it was hurried because of an effort to keep play moving (after weather delays got the tournament behind earlier in the week and golfers played a marathon on Saturday and Sunday to catch up with the schedule), then shame on the Golf Powers That Be. If it was just an error in judgement by that official and/or his superiors, then I understand that. We all make mistakes.

But this was a major mistake and a major distraction, one that the USGA should deeply review at length and learn from for future situations.

Dustin Johnson, who is from Columbia, S.C., is fortunate that he was leading by enough strokes after walking off the 18th green at Oakmont that the USGA’s blunder was a distraction that didn’t even matter.

With the weight of all the major pains in the past for Johnson, who celebrates his 32nd birthday on Wednesday, he finally accomplished the dramatic (thanks to the USGA this time) without the disappointment. After plenty of debate followed him around all day Sunday, Dustin Johnson has transferred his membership from the Second Place Club to the historic list of U.S. Open champions.

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