OAKMONT, Pa. - The United States Golf Association always wants the American public to take a strong personal interest in the game, and so it did Sunday. Judging from social media, the whole country took notice of the U.S. Open and pretty much considered it the biggest USGA boondoggle since the rain-check fiasco at Bethpage in 2009.
Perhaps outdone only by the debacle of the scorched greens at Shinnecock Hills in 2004.
The episode involving eventual champion Dustin Johnson and a ruling on the fifth hole in the final round was another one of those moments when the “USGA” on all the merchandise and letterheads seemed to translate to “Oops!”
This was not the sort of attention that the association wanted for the sport. It was another tone-deaf moment, like the time the USGA needed prodding from New York State to compensate fans who never saw golf on the stormy first day of the 2009 Open at the Black Course. The consolation was it could have been worse. Had Johnson not salvaged the moment with outstanding play, and had his competitors not crumbled on cue, it would have been an embarrassment for the ages.
As it was, the whole thing was an example of the nightmare that can come from a head-on collision between modern technology and unbending adherence to rules.
By now, you all know what happened: Johnson alerted a rules official on the fifth green that his ball had moved — in keeping with the honor of a game in which the competitors call penalties on themselves.
Even though he insisted he did nothing to cause the ball to move and the referee with the group gave him an “all clear,” other officials had doubts when they watched the super magnified, super slow motion video. Jeff Hall, the manager of competitions, told Johnson on the 12th hole that they would revisit it after the round. It left an amazingly ridiculous uncertainty over the Oakmont grounds, enshrouding the great national championship in a cloud.
“We simply told him what we saw on video was a concern,” Hall said later. “We wanted to put him on notice that there could be a penalty. He handled the situation beautifully.”
The USGA felt it owed it to Johnson to let him know, not springing it on him after the round. Johnson had been through that before, at the 2010 PGA Championship.
Those officials meant well. They really did. They do love the game and its traditions. But this went a little over the top. They should have known when to leave technology on the shelf. This was as silly as the PGA Tour assessing a penalty after some TV viewer calls in to complain that a player committed an infraction (which has happened).
In the days when there was no video capable of capturing a golf ball traveling a teensy millimeter, officials just took the player’s word for it. They should have done that in this case. We have heard for weeks that Oakmont Country Club cut down thousands of trees so the place could regain its original look. What about going back to the good old idea of respecting a player’s dignity?
One thing is for sure: The USGA did not get the benefit of the doubt. The Fox announcers were all over the association. So was just about everybody who weighed in on Twitter. John Daly tweeted that he assessed himself a two-cocktail penalty just for watching. The great writer Dan Jenkins’ message to the USGA was, “While we’re Young” (echoing the famous line from “Caddyshack” used by the USGA in an ad campaign against slow play). Rory McIlroy derided the decision as “amateur hour.” The latter was a tad unfair. McIlroy had been mum on Saturday, petulantly leaving the course without talking to reporters who wanted to hear his take on his own failures (he missed the cut).
Anyway, the U.S. Open will survive this. The fact that the Johnson episode caused such a ruckus was a backhanded compliment, showing how important the Open is. Johnson himself, when asked on Wednesday his opinion of the event, said, “What’s not to like? It’s the U.S. Open.”
The USGA just needs to keep its grip on common sense and common courtesy. Then, when people talk about the golf tournament, they might talk about the golf.