Editor’s note: The following article will appear in the September 2016 issue of Golf Digest.
The ball moved a couple of dimples. But it started a runaway train of dissent that has yet to stop.
With the 116th U.S. Open at Oakmont on the line in the final round, United States Golf Association rules officials tried to follow their heads—with a devotion to the letter of a new rule—and their hearts, extending a complicating courtesy to Dustin Johnson.
When it comes to the Rules of Golf, the two don't mix, and the USGA made, as executive director Mike Davis admitted, in a contrite postmortem, "a big bogey."
As the USGA said in its day-after statement: "Upon reflection, we regret the distraction caused by our decision to wait until the end of the round to decide on the ruling. It is normal for rulings based on video evidence to await the end of a round, when the matter can be discussed with the player before the scorecard is returned. While our focus on getting the ruling correct was appropriate, we created uncertainty about where players stood on the leader board ... "
Johnson won by three shots, even with a penalty stroke the court of public opinion didn't think he deserved, so technically the gaffe did not affect the outcome. But contemplating the possibilities of what could have happened—Johnson winning by one, only to be penalized and forced into a playoff, or worse, tying but really losing—induces a shudder. As the laconic champion comically understated, "That would have been bad."
Even with no change in the finish, no past rules decision—not Jackie Pung's loss of the 1957 U.S. Women's Open because of a scorecard error, Robert De Vicenzo losing a chance at a Masters playoff on another scoring error, Johnson's penalty in a difficult-to-discern bunker at Whistling Straits in the 2010 PGA Championship, or even the denial of Casey Martin's cart—ever created such a furor.
According to a USGA spokesperson, more than 10,000 letters, emails, texts and phone calls were sent or made to the association within three days of Johnson's victory, some of them nasty and even threatening.
Of course, to most non-purists, the Rules of Golf are the refuge of lost-in-the-weeds wonks whose decisions too often contradict common sense. But to the dedicated few who uphold the rules, they are sacred pillars of the game.
At Oakmont, the blowback was extreme after the world's toughest championship was hit by a perfect storm of circumstances. In the way of moments that live long in history, all sorts of elements had to coalesce:
▶ The super-fast greens at Oakmont, where Sam Snead in the early 1950s cracked that even coins slid downhill, were running about 15 on the Stimpmeter this year.
▶ A late-afternoon setting in which uneven tufts of growing Poa annua could leave balls precariously perched on the greens.
▶ A difficult rules situation involving Johnson, the fourth-round leader, which made post-round video review—standard procedure in another round or with a non-contender—problematic.
▶ An eerily similar ruling earlier in the day that produced no penalty, setting up a contrast that brought home an untested rule's subjective criteria.
▶ Johnson is a player who takes his putting practice strokes very close to the ball—so close one multiple major champion says he has "cringed" when seeing the strokes and Johnson grounding the toe of his putter to the side of the ball.
▶ A referee in Johnson's group—the chairman of the Rules of Golf Committee, no less—issued an initial ruling on the fifth green that no rules violation had occurred, based on a conversation with Johnson and Lee Westwood, paired together, only to see the ruling overturned.
▶ A "strict" interpretation that deemed as "instantaneous" the roughly two seconds from the time Johnson's putter was grounded next to (but not behind) the ball to when the ball moved.
▶ The extended time required for an initial video review of the incident by three USGA officials, in which six competitive holes were played before Johnson was finally informed on the 12th tee that he might be penalized. (In the three-hole playoff for the U.S. Women's Open in July, officials did not inform Anna Nordqvist of a two-stroke penalty she incurred on the second playoff hole for touching the sand in a bunker until after her third shot on the third playoff hole, but before opponent, Brittany Lang, with whom she had been tied, hit her third shot.)
▶ A well-meaning but misjudged decision to delay a final ruling until Johnson could view the video after the round.
▶ Questions about how involved two of the four members of the championship's rules committee were in the final ruling.
▶ Davis, the executive director, being conspicuous by his absence during the decision to postpone the final ruling, and in the post-round explanation of the ruling.
Exacerbating the entire mess was a real-time, social-media free-for-all in which top players led the way in blasting the USGA. Perhaps they were primed to vent after playing in the championship that tests them most arduously, but regardless, the vote from that demographic was pretty much unanimous. Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy, Rickie Fowler and Tiger Woods all took healthy swipes. More tellingly, not one tour pro publicly defended the ruling.
In the process, several players betrayed an ignorance of the current rule on which the decision was based. But even given that, what most bothered the players was the USGA's presumed insensitivity to the extra stress being put in scoring limbo would exert on a player already in the most pressurized situation in golf.
As 2012 U.S. Open champion Webb Simpson tweeted, Telling a golfer mid-round (!) about a potential 1 shot penalty would cause most about 4 shots in anxiety. But it wasn't just contemporary players. Said Gary Player, "How can the USGA let a circumstance like the one Dustin faced linger throughout almost a whole round? Unfair added pressure, especially after facing a similar controversy in 2010. No player deserves to go through that kind of turmoil." Concluded Jack Nicklaus, "You either have [a penalty] or you don't have one. I think it's very unfair to the player."
Perhaps most damning was the perspective of Westwood. "The whole thing was handled very badly," said Westwood, who shot 80 in the fourth round to finish T-32. "I don't think anyone should be treated the way Dustin was. There was nobody willing to make a decision. And what they eventually did, they got wrong. ... I'm not sure what they would have done if it had mattered."
The importance of the disparate elements of the entire episode will all be debated. But the prime mover was the language of the current Rule 18-2, "Ball at Rest Moved."
Moving balls on the green have long been perhaps the most vexing rules problem. Since the 1800s until this year, the rule essentially stated that a ball that moves after a player has grounded a club in the address position invokes a penalty of one stroke.
Fast greens in high winds, upon which balls would move through no fault of the player, were the rule's kryptonite. Nicklaus, to avoid such a penalty, made sure never to ground his putter at address if he thought the ball had a chance to move.
In 2012, an exception to the rule was added in which a player who had addressed his ball would not be penalized when wind and/or gravity made it "virtually certain the player did not cause the ball to move."
Because that change was well-received, the rule was rewritten to get rid of the grounded club as a main trigger for penalty and simply ask one question: Did the player cause the ball to move? The change took effect Jan. 1 of this year and allows for any and all actions that could have caused the ball to move in an individual case to be reviewed.
Here's the key language: "If the weight of evidence indicates that it is more likely than not that the player caused the ball to move, even though that conclusion is not free from doubt, the player incurs a one-stroke penalty under Rule 18-2 and the ball must be replaced."
As the USGA officials would explain, "more likely than not" means that as little as 51 percent of the weight of the evidence is required to penalize a player, even though such a decision would not be free from doubt. The terms contrast sharply with the standards of "beyond a reasonable doubt" to prove guilt in a criminal case, or "indisputable video evidence" to overturn a call on the field in the NFL. Though the difference is nuanced, "more likely than not" doesn't sound as strong as "the preponderance of evidence" needed to win a civil trial.
Furthermore, Johnson was hurt by a rule that was revised to help players who were grounding their putters while addressing the ball. He had not done so while incurring his penalty at Oakmont.
First, in the 10:20 a.m. starting time, Romain Wattel of France faced a sharply downhill putt of two feet for par on Oakmont's second green. After grounding his putter while addressing his ball for some five seconds as he looked at the hole, Wattel looked down and determined his ball had moved. He had not actually seen his ball move but noticed that the line on the ball he uses for alignment had changed position.
The referee in the group, respected rules authority Dr. Lew Blakey, ruled that Wattel had not caused the ball to move. Blakey based his decision on the relatively long amount of time that elapsed from the time Wattel grounded his club to the time that the player detected it had moved, the downslope the ball rested on, and a slight bit of wind. After Wattel played on, the ruling was reviewed by USGA officials via video and accepted as the correct ruling. Says one longtime rules official: "I was surprised there wasn't a gathering of [officials] after the Wattel ruling. Once the ruling was made by Lew and confirmed, that they would have said, 'This is U.S. Open Sunday, and this is the road map for the rest of the round.' "
Shortly before 5 p.m., Johnson, playing with Westwood in the second-to-last group of the day, faced a slightly uphill four-footer for par on the fifth hole. After taking two practice swings within a couple of inches of the ball, he lightly grounded the toe of his club near the ball and then raised it behind the ball but did not place the club on the ground behind the ball. The time between the putter last touching the ground and the ball moving—ever-so-slightly backward—was about two seconds. Johnson quickly stood up and stepped away from the ball, noting that it had moved, and called in referee Mark Newell. The other referee with the group, Stu Francis, chair of the championship committee, did not engage in the conversation with Johnson.
Johnson told Newell he had not caused the ball to move, emphasizing that he had not addressed and grounded his club, a position with which Westwood voiced agreement. On the telecast, Newell asked Johnson, "OK, you hadn't grounded the club or anything—it just moved?" When Johnson said he hadn't, Newell instructed him to play on with no penalty. Johnson said, "Thank you," re-marked, and made his par putt.
Though most things having to do with the Johnson ruling moved too slowly, his encounter with Newell might have gone too fast. Watching on television, David Eger, a former rules official for the USGA and the PGA Tour before becoming a winner on the PGA Tour Champions, thought Johnson should have been asked to recount more of his actions while he was near the ball.
A later description from Westwood is detailed. "It all started when I asked Dustin to move his marker off my line," Westwood said the week after the championship. "He did so, and after I missed my putt, he put his marker back and replaced his ball. I went to the edge of the green and watched him take his practice swings to the side of the ball. As he went to put his putter behind the ball, it moved very slightly. I could see that it had because the line on top wasn't quite straight as it had been when he started his routine. The ball had actually rolled back, away from the hole.
"Dustin actually called it on himself before I said or did anything," Westwood said. "But I knew his putter had not been behind the ball when it moved. As far as I was concerned, he had not caused it to move. He certainly hadn't touched it.
"To be fair, the ball was sitting on a slight upslope, which is why it moved backward," Westwood said. "Anyway, Dustin called in the referee, who asked if he could think of any way in which he could have caused the ball to move. Dustin said he couldn't. I agreed with him, and the referee said play on. That was really the end of it as far as I was concerned."
Soon after Johnson and Westwood teed off on the sixth hole, a USGA official assigned to video review, Craig Winter, the assistant director of Rules of Golf and Amateur Status, studied the replay from a nearby location and texted his boss, Thomas Pagel, the USGA's senior director of Rules of Golf and Amateur Status, with concerns that Johnson might have caused his ball to move. Winter also texted Jeff Hall, managing director of Rules and Competitions. Pagel was walking with the last group of Shane Lowry and Andrew Landry, not as a referee but as a roving official. Hall was also on the course as a rover. The two took carts through the course to meet Winter and watch the video.
Hall said that by the time he and Pagel had the chance to see the video, Johnson was playing the ninth hole. Hall and Pagel agreed that the weight of the visual evidence suggested Johnson had broken Rule 18-2 on the fifth hole. They then took a cart to inform Johnson that he might incur a one-stroke penalty. When they reached Johnson, he was playing the 11th hole. After he putted out, they approached him on the 12th tee.
The video evidence superseded what Newell had determined. Although Rule 34-2 states "a referee's decision is final," Rule 34-3 states the rules committee's decision is final. At Oakmont, the rules committee was made up of Pagel, Hall, Newell and Francis. As Pagel later said, "We had evidence. We saw it. We had to act on it." The Notice to Players sheet handed out to each competitor stated that "final decisions on any disputed points will be made by" those committee members. According to the USGA, all four men did see the video before the final ruling was issued. But it would not confirm how involved Newell, whose initial ruling was overruled, and Francis were in the final decision.
Pagel and Hall made their assessment based on three elements: the player's actions (Johnson's practice-stroke routine), his distance from the ball when he made them (close, with the nose of the putter later touching ground) and the time between the end of those actions and when the ball moved (about two seconds). It added up to their opinion and eventual final determination that "more likely than not," Johnson had caused the ball to move.
According to Westwood, unlike Newell, Hall and Pagel did not ask for his version of what happened on the fifth green. "They asked Dustin and his caddie to step aside and told them they thought there might have been an infringement," Westwood said. "I listened in. They didn't ask for any input from me. I thought that was strange. I was a bit disappointed, really. I was Dustin's playing partner. I was marking his card. I had been asked for my opinion on the fifth green. Yet they didn't ask me anything, even though I was right there."
Hall and Pagel's conversation with Johnson, coming in the midst of the competition, was not conclusive. "We told him what we saw was a concern, but we also asked him a couple of questions," Hall said. "Was there something else that could have caused the ball to move?"
Johnson remained firm that he had done nothing to move the ball, reiterating that he had not grounded his club while addressing the ball. "And that was the case," said Hall, crucially adding, "but he did ground the putter proximate to the ball."
When asked at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational to recount the events of Oakmont, Johnson seemed to betray some confusion in his explanation of his understanding of the rule. "I know if I cause the ball to move, it's a penalty," he said. "And I know the rule where if your club's behind the ball, but it's not soled on the ground and it happens to move, then it's not a penalty. And then they changed it where if the putter's on the ground behind the ball, but the wind causes it to move, it's not a penalty anymore."
Actually, it was an accurate description of the rule before Jan. 1 of this year. But when asked if he was aware at the time he talked to officials on Sunday at Oakmont of the new language, Johnson says he was: "I know what they were saying. I still didn't agree with them. But at that point, I just wanted to get it over with. For them to just do what you need to do, and let's go."
Hall and Pagel hesitated. "We had an opportunity and an obligation, we felt, to explain the rule," Hall said, "and doing that in the middle of the 12th tee just didn't seem like an appropriate time."
This was the error that the USGA statement said was crucial. Rather than calling the penalty at that moment, officials decided that Johnson deserved to see the video, out of courtesy. There was also Hall's view, a technical one given that he had strongly hinted at a breach, that no decision had been made: "When we had a discussion with Dustin," he said, "we certainly didn't know what the outcome was going to be."
Added Pagel: "We just wanted [Johnson] to realize that we were concerned, and we wanted to make him aware of that so that he could strategically make decisions that he needed to make for the balance of the round, and that based on the conversation as it evolved, we said, 'We'll show it to you when you come in. We'd like you to have the benefit of what we have, of what we've seen,' so that hopefully he could get more comfortable with that situation. ... It was clear we needed a further conversation, and the 12th tee did not seem the right place for that."
Johnson probably could have forced a decision by insisting on getting a ruling then and there. Another player might have done just that. McIlroy had tweeted, If it was me I wouldn't hit another shot until this farce was rectified. Woods said at a press conference before his tournament, "I'm a little more feisty than Dustin." And Spieth added this: "I've grounded a putter before the rule where it was a penalty, even though I didn't touch the ball, but my putter rested behind it, and then after the rule change I've had it to where, yes, it was a gust of wind on fast greens that moved the ball off of where it was located and it wasn't a penalty, and then I've had quite a few occasions where something else caused the ball to move even though I had taken my practice strokes just like Dustin did but I had not put my putter behind the ball but it moved when I was taking practice strokes, and I've never seen it called a penalty. . . . As far as the guys that I've talked to, no one has ever had an incident like that called a penalty."
Johnson would later say that the rules issue didn't weigh on him as he played on. "I just told myself, We'll worry about it when we get done," he said. "I didn't think I was going to be penalized. They said they were going to review. There was nothing I could do about it. Just focus on this next shot. I tried to do that from there, all the way to the house. It was just me and the golf course." After his discussion with Hall and Pagel ended, Johnson hit his tee shot on the 12th more than 350 yards down the fairway.
Whether Johnson should have been penalized will join other famous ruling debates like Arnold Palmer's right to a "second ball" on the 12th hole at the 1958 Masters, or whether Woods should have been disqualified for signing an incorrect scorecard after a bad drop on the 15th hole at the 2013 Masters.
A key point of reference will be the Wattel ruling. Blakey, the referee, had considered the five seconds Wattel's ball presumably didn't move after he had grounded his club in the address position enough time to absolve the Frenchman from being the cause of the movement, but Pagel would characterize the two seconds that passed after Johnson soled the toe of his putter next to the side of his ball as "instantaneous" and thus damning.
Eger believes the right call was made based on the rule as written but admits his experience writing, interpreting and administering the rules gives him an uncommon perspective. "All the rules officials I know think Dustin broke the rule, but none of my friends who I play golf with think he did. None of my friends have all the information. They use the wrong criteria to judge. But the rules are so fastidious, precise and often complicated."
But David Fay, the USGA's executive director for two decades, who served as the Fox telecast's rules expert, contends the Johnson ruling was a close one even for officials. "You could get 10 rules experts and show them video evidence of Wattel's and Johnson's actions around the ball. I guarantee some would say Wattel deserved a penalty and Johnson didn't, or that neither deserved a penalty, or that both did."
Although Hall and Pagel said they were "comfortable" with their determination, they knew they would be overruling another referee and contradicting two players. It was by definition a close call, and perhaps the finality of imposing such a decision on the U.S. Open leader in the last round contributed to their delay. As Davis acknowledges, if Johnson had been assessed the penalty on the 12th tee, "that would not have gone over well."
The decision to delay a final ruling until the end of the round put the championship in limbo. Pagel had to notify the other players in contention, which he did by the time Johnson had parred the par-5 12th, that the leader "might" receive a penalty.
Who knows what the effect was. Shane Lowry initially said it didn't bother him, but he lost strokes the rest of the way and later said he played the last three holes thinking he was two behind, when he would have trailed by only one if the penalty had been called earlier. Scott Piercy and Sergio Garcia also fell back, though they denied it was because they were distracted by the confusion over Johnson's score.
Ironically, the man who'd had a history of failing to finish off majors, Johnson, closed as coolly as anyone ever has. After his climactic closing birdie, Johnson was brought into the scoring trailer by Davis. Johnson looked at the video with Hall and Pagel twice. Then he said, in his very D.J. way, "OK, whatever. Let's just get on with the prize presentation."
The next week, Johnson alluded to the near disaster while speaking with CBS' Jim Nantz: "If I would've won by only one shot, we might still be there."
And now the USGA must re-evaluate. There's no doubt that its rules procedures in competitive settings must be more efficient and decisive. Because it was the final round, once it was decided that new evidence must override the original referee's call, a final ruling should have been made on the 12th tee, even if meant stopping play until Johnson's input could be adequately obtained. In the future, perhaps officials should be equipped with tablet computers featuring large displays to show video.
In retrospect, executive director Mike Davis didn't take charge at a time when an accountable leader was desperately needed to speak for the organization. Hall and Pagel were too careful and scripted in their interviews on Fox and Golf Channel, neither in a position to provide the bigger-picture perspective that was needed. At Oakmont, the buck had no place to stop.
Whatever the procedural flaws, the events at Oakmont were also a reminder that administering the rules in real time, especially under the hot lights of a worldwide audience, isn't easy. If Newell's questioning of Johnson on the fifth was indeed rushed and incomplete, it might have led to Hall and Pagel not feeling they had enough detail from the player's side to issue a fair decision.
Video can clarify, but it can also complicate. When no video exists, a player's testimony can be defining. But when it does, it becomes the primary source of information. And with an exact rendition of events comes a greater and perhaps unreasonable expectation to get a ruling—even if it is ultimately based on judgment—"exactly" right.
"When you're answering questions of fact, when you're weighing the evidence, those are the most challenging things you could ever do as a committee because you know there are going to be people that disagree with you," Pagel said of the Johnson ruling. "But at the end of the day, we weighed the evidence, and we felt it was more likely than not, and we were comfortable with that, and we wanted to get it right."
Though Pagel and Hall were comfortable with following the rule, the real problem was with the rule they were following. As Oakmont proved, newly revised Rule 18-2 is just not good enough. It allows too much room for interpretation and has too low a threshold for guilt. It was successful in eliminating a grounded club at address being an automatic trigger for a penalty if a ball at rest moves (although it's arguable that the 2012 exception to account for high winds and gravity adequately refined the former rule). And the central issue to be determined—did the player cause the ball to move?—is the right one.
But in trying to solve a problem, the new rule created new situations that are arguably worse. The main one? When it comes to determining what made a ball move on the green short of touching it with the putter or the body, there is almost never anything close to proof that a player's actions were the cause. "More likely than not" or "51 percent of the evidence" is a recipe for too many close calls.
That Pagel's defense of the Johnson ruling came down to an unanswerable question—"If the player hadn't been anywhere near the ball, would it have moved by itself?"—was an admission of weakness. In short, Rule 18-2 should go down as a nice try that mandates the USGA try harder.
"We know we have a problem with the rule," Davis says. "It is absolutely being looked at—we've been talking about this for months. It's better than it was, but it's not fixed," adding, "This just happened in a bad way. It happened to bring to light things that are very troublesome. And most troublesome on the putting green."
At the Open Championship at Troon, four weeks after Oakmont, Davis weighed in one more time: "No one will ever know if Dustin caused the ball to move, but anyone who thinks the rule wasn't applied correctly doesn't know the rules. If we had not applied that penalty, we could never have lived with ourselves. But the issue is with the rule itself. It forces an official into the most difficult situation—adjudicating the weight of evidence. We will learn from it, and golf will learn from it. One of our major goals is to modernize and simplify the rules, not just for tournament play, for everyday play. And the game will benefit in the long run."
Unless and until there's a shift on green speeds, PGA Tour official Slugger White would love to see the rule amended again to allow for the replacement of a ball that moves for any reason without being touched. "Anytime after marking the ball on the putting green only," says White, who says incidents of balls at rest moving were extremely rare when he played the tour on greens that ran nine or 10 on the Stimpmeter. "If the ball moves after that without the player touching it, put it back, no penalty, keep going."
White uses a hypothetical inverse to make his case. "If a player hits his tee shot on a par 3 above the hole, marks his ball, and while he's reading the putt a gust of wind comes up and the ball rolls in the hole, under the rules, that's a 1. Well, I think the rule should change so it's not a 1. The player should put the ball back and putt from where it had originally been at rest. I know our people at the tour would agree with that change. And it would be a simpler rule, which is what the USGA is going for."
Said John Paramor, chief referee of the European Tour, after hearing White's suggestion: "Oh, yes, I agree with it. I think you'll see some movement with that."
The other obvious suggestion is to slow down green speeds in major championships. At the Constellation Senior Players Championship in June, Australia's Peter Fowler reported that over four rounds at Philadelphia Cricket Club, the combination of high winds and "silly fast" greens caused six or seven occasions in which he or one of his playing partners saw their balls move as they were preparing to putt. Fowler said they never called in a rules officials, opting instead to play their balls from where they stopped rolling, with no penalty.
In the meantime, raise the threshold of evidence needed against the player. To actually assess a penalty, and especially to overrule a referee, the evidence should be at least close to the standard of "beyond a reasonable doubt." Here's why. Governing the infinitesimal movement of the golf ball is a slippery slope. Consider the act of marking a ball on the green. Can it really be put back exactly where it was? Or after putting it down, doesn't the ball sometimes move almost imperceptibly into a depression?
Allowing more leeway for the movement of balls at rest could create an even slipperier slope for the smallest movements, but rules should err toward providing the player with the benefit of the doubt rather than toward trapping them. Johnson was indicted on what seemed to be an assumption of guilt that he could have only overcome with a convincing verbal argument. It seems that with the new rule, the player is carrying an excessive burden of proof.
On some level, Hall and Pagel might have sensed this. And perhaps they chose not to issue the penalty on the 12th tee because they—for all their outward determination to follow and defend the new rule—didn't really believe in its fairness.
In trying to be fair, the USGA rewrote an unfair rule but made it worse. In trying to be fair, officials asked Dustin Johnson to wait for a ruling after his round but made the situation worse.
The next revision of the "Ball at Rest Moved" rule will have elements of unfairness. But what's vital is that it be easier to apply and understand, and that it pass the common-sense test. Because on this one, the USGA can't afford to give life to old stereotypes.
Whatever it does next should have the force to stop a train.
Additional reporting by John Huggan.
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