By an overwhelming margin, golfers and most observers thought the U.S. Golf Association’s handling of Dustin Johnson’s penalty stroke at the U.S. Open was a sorry day for the sport. Upon further review, the USGA agrees. The association issued an apology Monday for dragging out its decision and causing the “distraction” that overshadowed Johnson’s first major victory.
The USGA did not apologize for the decision itself, standing behind the one-shot penalty issued to the champion. The association still believes it was “more likely than not” that Johnson was responsible for causing his ball to move on the fifth green Sunday. But the group did express regret for not having made it official until after his round at Oakmont Country Club was over.
“This created unnecessary ambiguity for Dustin and other players, as well as spectators on-site, and those watching and listening on television and digital channels,” the statement said, referring to the situation in which Johnson was told on the 12th green that he would have to meet with the USGA after his round. That left all the golfers unsure where they stood, including Johnson’s closest pursuer, Shane Lowry, who had called a penalty on himself Saturday when his ball moved on a green.
“We accept that not everyone will agree that Dustin caused his ball to move,” the statement continued, acknowledging a severe social-media backlash. Tiger Woods, in his congratulatory tweet to Johnson, praised the winner for overcoming a “rules farce.”
The controversy was sparked by a statute that took effect Jan. 1. Previously, the rule was cut and dried: It was a one-stroke penalty if a ball moved after the golfer addressed it. The recent revision says that a penalty occurs, “only when the facts show that the player has caused the ball to move.” That protects golfers against happenstance such as a gust of wind, but it also adds a layer of vagueness.
“I think the USGA is to be congratulated for changing the rule this year, but apparently it needs more work,” said Michael Hebron, the PGA Hall of Fame pro at Smithtown Landing who strongly believes in golfers’ integrity to monitor their own infractions. He once was caddying for Pat McGowan at the PGA Tour’s qualifying tournament and inadvertently touched the cup. No one saw it but McGowan, but the player—despite having his career at stake—called a two-stroke penalty on himself. (He earned his card anyway.)
Hebron watched the bizarre drama unfold at Oakmont Sunday, which heightened when Jeff Hall, managing director of rules and competition for the USGA, approached Johnson seven holes after the matter seemed settled. “After [Johnson] and his playing partner and the official agreed, that should have been the end of it,” Hebron said, expressing an opinion shared by many, including Jack Nicklaus at Oakmont.
But Hall said it is up to officials to use all of the evidence that they can gather. Johnson ultimately was penalized and officially won by three shots rather than four. “At the end of the day, it’s about getting it right,” Hall said at a news conference late Sunday night. “I feel pretty comfortable we got it right today.”
Brian Mahoney, director of rules and competitions for the Metropolitan Golf Association, said, “The USGA did everything appropriately and in a timely fashion, given the circumstances.” He was watching with friends and their families and was besieged by questions at the time, and has been so ever since.
“People say, ‘Geez, what happened?’ But the end result was that it was more likely than not that what Dustin was doing had something to do with the ball moving,” Mahoney said. “This rule in general is a tough one. Actually a situation like this is not abnormal for those of us in the business.
“Dustin handled it like an absolute pro,” the MGA’s top competition official said, adding that he thinks the rule will be reviewed.
Doug Vergith, executive director of the Long Island Golf Association, said of the sport’s governing bodies, “They tried to soften the rule. My thought is, they’ll change it again.”
As for the episode’s lasting impression, Vergith echoed the sentiment of many when he said, “I thought it was not good for golf.”