Tour News

USGA's problem is they got the Johnson ruling right

IT might be the biggest rules controversy since Tiger at the 2013 Masters but the USGA got the Johnson ruling right on Sunday at Oakmont.

THE biggest problem with the Dustin Johnson penalty controversy at the US Open isn't that the USGA got the ruling wrong, it's that they got it right.

Calls for the rules of golf to be changed are constant. Almost everyone who plays the game, from beginners to seasoned professionals, has at least one rule they hate.

So every four years the game's governing bodies, the USGA and R&A, review the rules and make changes as and when they see fit.

The last time they did this was at the beginning of this year and while the ban on anchored putting was the change that attracted all the headlines, the rule covering the Johnson situation was another that was modified.

Prior to 2012, Rule 18-2 stated that if a player's ball moved after the player addressed it (defined by the player grounding his club behind the ball), a penalty stroke was incurred.

The key to deciding whether the penalty was applied wasn't whether the player caused the ball to move but whether the player had addressed the ball.

The examples of this rule leading to an innocent player being penalised are almost endless, typically when strong winds and fast greens combined to make addressing the ball a dangerous proposition.

It's the reason many pro golfers, when playing in extremely windy conditions, refuse to ground their putter before taking a stroke.

With each public incident, the calls for something to be done to make 18-2 'fair' grew louder and in 2012 an exception was added to the rule.



The exception said: “If it is known or virtually certain that the player did not cause his ball to move, Rule 18-2b does not apply.”

It's a subtle but significant change and was, according to a video released jointly by the USGA and R&A in late 2015, so well received that “the rationale for that exception is going to be extended.”

“What I mean by that,” Thomas Pagel, USGA Senior Rules Director, says in the video, “is that any time a ball moves there's going to be one simple question.

“Did the player cause the ball to move? If the answer is yes, there's a one stroke penalty and the player has to replace it.

“If the answer is no, the player is going to play the ball from it's new location unless some other rule applies.”

And so to Oakmont and how this new rule played out on the 5th green of the final round.

The eventual champion faced a four-foot putt for par and as he prepared to make his stroke took several practice swings next to his ball. He also grounded his putter twice, again next to the ball.

He then moved the putter head behind the ball, without grounding it, and as he did so the ball moved backwards.

Johnson immediately called over Lee Westwood and the walking rules official to notify them what had happened.

All agreed Johnson had not caused the ball to move and the official, Mark Newell, confirmed he should play the ball from where it now lay.

Normally that would be the end of the matter but here's where it got tricky for the USGA. If Johnson didn't cause the ball to move, then what did?

Had they not taken the initiative to explore this question there is no doubt one or more of the television viewing audience would have.

Everything that followed from this simple question, only in existence because of an attempt to 'fix' an 'unfair' rule, was what caused the storm of controversy that followed.

Under the previous rule, Johnson was in the clear. He didn't address the ball therefore there was no penalty.

But with the new rule, suddenly things weren't so straightforward.

Whether the USGA handled things well from that point on is up for debate. Taking the unusual move of telling Johnson he might be in for a penalty while he was still on the course is questionable.

But in terms of the rule itself, and the one stroke penalty they assessed Johnson after he finished play, the USGA got it right and explained as much in a statement released after enduring almost 24 hours of criticism.

“During any competition, the priority for Rules officials is to make the correct ruling for the protection of the player(s) involved and the entire field,” they wrote.

“In applying Rule 18-2, which deals with a ball at rest that moves, officials consider all the relevant evidence – including the player’s actions, the time between those actions and the movement of the ball, the lie of the ball, and course and weather conditions.

“If that evidence, considered together, shows that it is more likely than not that the player’s actions caused the ball to move, the player incurs a one-stroke penalty.

“Officials use this 'more likely than not' standard because it is not always apparent what caused the ball to move. Such situations require a review of the evidence, with Decision 18-2/0.5 providing guidance on how the evidence should be weighed.

“Our officials reviewed the video of Dustin on the fifth green and determined that based on the weight of the evidence, it was more likely than not that Dustin caused his ball to move.

“Dustin’s putter contacted the ground at the side of the ball, and almost immediately after, the ball moved.”

Whether you agree with the final interpretation or not there is no question officials are within their rights to make it. They even addressed this fact in their statement.

“We accept that not everyone will agree that Dustin caused his ball to move,” they wrote.

“Issues under Rule 18-2 often require a judgment where there is some uncertainty, and this was one of those instances.

“We also understand that some people may disagree with Rule 18-2 itself. While we respect the viewpoints of those who disagree, our Committee made a careful and collective judgment in its pursuit of a fair competition played under the Rules of Golf.”

As they should. The Committee can only enforce the rules that apply at the time of the competition and this is precisely what they did.

Perhaps the lesson to be learned from 'Dustin-gate' isn't really about the specifics of any given rules situation but to reinforce the point that, by its very nature, golf simply can never have a 'one size fits all' set of rules.

And when you try to change one rule or part thereof to make it more 'fair', there are often unpalatable consequences when unforeseen circumstances arise further down the road.



Want video tips delivered straight to your inbox? Subscribe to iseekgolf.com newsletters.

iSeekGolf is Australia’s largest golf tee times website.
To book a tee time at an iSeekGolf venue, visit iseekgolf.com/teetimes


More Articles from Rod Morri