U.S. OpenJune 21, 2016

The big problem with Sunday’s rules fiasco isn't what you think

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This is not an attack of the USGA’s mishandling of the Dustin Johnson episode. That particular misfortune, allowing an event that happened on the fifth hole to persist unresolved for the entirety of major championship Sunday, well, you’ve already read a barrage of materials on how terrible that all was. And this isn’t about the excessiveness of greens that stimp at 14, when 11.5 or 12 is scary fast and more than adequate to identify the steeliest player while nearly erasing the likelihood of such bizarre rulings. No, this about something much bigger: The danger of golf losing the very thing that makes it special.

To determine if Dustin Johnson had caused the ball to move, the USGA insisted he review a slow-motion video replay. This after Dustin (and playing partner Lee Westwood) said he had not. A golfer’s integrity was put on trial and the judge was a camera.

If the naked eye cannot be trusted to detect whatever it is you are trying to see, then what you are trying to see does not exist, at least in the realm of sports. In this case, the subatomic physical relationship between air, grass blade and TaylorMade. Microscopes are essential in science and engineering, but when it comes to comparing the athleticism of men and women and calling a winner, reliance on gadgetry diminishes the contest. When a downhill skier loses a race by .001 of a second, does he really lose? Because the mind is incapable of conceiving such an abstraction, the contest is flawed. When a wide receiver’s toe is judged oh just a fraction of a fraction out-of-bounds on what the ref originally called the game-winning catch, does that result sit well? A few years ago or in a different league the catch might’ve been called the other way, and record books start to read like fiction.

Not to demean skiers or football players--all are tremendous athletes--but the results of their games are not as pure. For the moment, let’s not even delve into the lack of clarity that plagues judged sports, like gymnastics and figure skating. The elegance of golf is that the ball falls into the cup or it doesn’t, and every competitor is guaranteed to lose by at least the singular unit of a full stroke. A margin that has always been a source of comfort, until this weekend, when Dustin won by somewhere between three and four.

With the national championship on the line, the USGA operated as judiciously as was possible, which meant waiting over three hours to make a ruling. In a statement released yesterday, the governing body said, “We will assess our procedures for handling video review, the timing of such, and our communication with players to make sure that when confronted with such a situation, we will have a better process.” That sounds like trotting an iPad out to Dustin on the 6th tee so he can call it right then and there, or else keeping lips sealed until the end and then rocking the entire tournament with a showstopper penalty. A coup de grace as the curtain closes.

But here’s a better idea: Let’s simply get rid of any rules that require a camera. Rule 18-2, which deals with a ball at rest that moves, is absurd. If the five human senses are inadequate, than whatever we are trying to discover is unimportant.

I’m not anti-technology. Shot tracer and the other advanced graphic techniques deployed by Fox were excellent and enhanced the broadcast. I love my laser range finder and my carbon-crown driver. But let’s keep tech out of rulings so that golf can continue to be golf -- where the player and everyone watching can say plainly whether he won or lost. It’s what makes our game special.


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