In Defense Of Uncommon Sense

By Frank Hannigan Illustrations by Daniel Adel
October 18, 2010

The year 2010 will not be remembered for any particular playing accomplishment but rather for Dustin Johnson

failing to realize he was sharing a bunker with dozens of spectators who had nowhere else to go on a depraved course that led mobs into hazards.

Johnson, although he had been warned repeatedly of the existence of trampled bunkers by the besieged PGA of America, nevertheless grounded his club in the bunker.

The ensuing and wholly justified two-stroke penalty meant Johnson would not be the PGA champion


The Johnson debacle was but one of a yearlong series of high-profile rules incidents that seemed to swallow the game.

These rules happenings were followed by roars of outrage at the injustice of it all. The Rules of Golf, it was reported in bona-fide media and anonymous blogs, are an ass. It was all very Tea Partyish in that the government, in this case the rules-making USGA, was denounced as causing nothing but harm. The rules, said the critics, were made by doddering old men in a haphazard manner designed to irk those with common sense who were sure all the publicized rules confrontations could have been handled in some ad-hoc manner resulting in no penalty for the likes of the nonreading Johnson, who, after all, didn't mean to ground his club in a hazard and surely gained no benefit in doing so.

Mind, the USGA has asked for trouble by performing badly in many areas of its provenance. It foisted upon the game a new groove rule on the basis that doing so would improve the game dramatically, whereas all it did was make golf a more expensive game by encouraging golfers to buy new clubs for no good reason. But handling the Rules of Golf is what the USGA is good at. (I exclude Rules 4 and 5 on equipment, the evolution of which has been a disaster.) Because the USGA is good at rules, the game is one of law and respect. Cheating, taken for granted not only in other games but throughout our society, is not tolerated in golf.

Take the celebrated Derek Jeter incident of September. During the heat of a pennant race, Jeter, the New York Yankees shortstop who passes as a sportsman in baseball, was at bat when an inside pitch struck the end of his bat. The ball bounced into play for what should have been an easy out. Instead, Jeter pretended the ball had struck his elbow. He conned the umpire, was awarded first base, and later chuckled about the affair in the clubhouse.

Suppose it was golf and a player had talked an official into a free drop to which he was not entitled under the rules. After the round he brags about it to the media, i.e., he was able to get the ball into an advantageous position he knew very well he was not entitled to have. The golf outcome would be disqualification for violating a rule and not making note of it on his scorecard; he would become an anathema to other PGA Tour members, and because he bragged about knowingly breaking a rule, chances are he would be fined and suspended.

Here is a summary of how the rules-making system works: There are four members of the Rules of Golf Committee drawn from the USGA executive committee of 15. They meet three times a year.

Additionally there are consulting members from the PGA Tour, the LPGA Tour, the PGA of America, regional amateur golf associations, the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, and three past presidents of the USGA. In other words, all of golf is included in the process.

Worldwide uniformity on rules, the USGA's holy grail, happens through its relationship with the R&A. The two bodies have an understanding that the basic rules will be amended only every four years.

Interpretations of the rules, called Decisions, come out every two years. Though the Rules of Golf booklet is small enough to fit easily in a golf-bag compartment, the bound book of Decisions is something of a brute. The Decisions, however, bear the same weight as the basic rules, so that if one commits to playing the USGA Rules of Golf there is an equal commitment to do what the Decisions say.

The USGA's paid staff is on the case daily. There are eight staff members, headed by rules director Jeff Hall, who spend all or most of their time working on the rules.

The staff answers every question, profound or trivial, submitted to the USGA. There are about 15,000 each year. Phone calls on the subject are counted. There were 8,223 in 2009; e-mails accounted for another 6,908.

As for those controversial 2010 happenings, that of Johnson, who was palpably guilty, comes first. There were, however, villains of management outside the rules. The PGA of America has no business playing its championship on a course so designed that spectators can't follow players without plodding through bunkers. As for the PGA official who was right there with Johnson, I know of no capable official who would not have said something like, "You know you're in a bunker, right?"

As for other rulings that raised hackles:

Juli Inkster was disqualified for turning in an incorrect scorecard because she failed to penalize herself for using a practice device as she waited during a round. The instrument was one of those weighted donut-looking things that slips over a club to make it heavier during practice swings. LPGA officials learned of the infraction after the round from a TV viewer.

The use of practice devices during play is banned in the Rules proper. The donut is identified as such a device in a Decision. Inkster in her reaction of innocence said she gained no advantage, an argument which, if accepted, would quickly lead to the abandonment of the Rules of Golf entirely.

But the hue and cry over the outcome centered on the source of the testimony -- television -- which bloggers say should be ignored as an enforcement tool.

Rules officials have an obligation to examine all credible evidence. For them, a mean television viewer is no different from a fellow-competitor or opponent. I would ask those who would ban TV callers as follows: Suppose a drunk comes out of one of those hospitality tents and tells a member of the field staff he has just seen a clear violation on a 50-inch TV set. How is that different from the witness having seen it in person or in his home?

is one of those players who seems rules-incident-prone. This year she failed to extricate her ball after playing from a lateral water hazard. Before having another go, she touched the ground in the hazard with a club, an obvious violation, but one that is forgiven provided the touching is done to prevent falling. Wie said that's why she touched the ground. Otherwise she would have gotten wet.

The happening was shown clearly on television. An LPGA official examined the footage and ruled Wie touched the ground for reasons unknown, that she was in no danger of falling, and there must be a penalty. Wie argued, but in vain. For what it's worth, I looked at the footage and agreed with the official. It was an unusual happening because it rested on judgment rather than fact -- like holding in football. It also emphasized the power and necessity of a "committee" in charge of the competition. In everyday golf, where no rules officials are wandering about, the "committee" in charge of the course commonly appoints the golf pro to act for it.

But how about the l4-year-old in Wisconsin who turned himself in after winning a junior tournament while unwittingly carrying a 15th club? Tears were shed for this lad's self-imposed DQ throughout golf-media land. There was no need to weep. The outcome should have been no penalty: The kid did not give "wrong information" (the rules euphemism for cheating), and once the results of an event have been announced there is no going back absent of proof that "wrong information" was given. Otherwise there would never be an end to any happening in golf. Suppose we learned today that Tiger Woods used a nonconforming putter while winning as a rookie, something that actually happened because of a manufacturer's error. Should he be penalized in 20l0? Of course not.

Then there was the case of Sarah Brown on the Futures Tour, an appendage of the LPGA Tour. She was accused of using a wedge that fails to conform with the USGA's new rule banning U-grooves. If guilty, the death penalty -- disqualification -- is observed.

Brown argued that her wedge had been adjusted to meet the new rule. The committee didn't buy it. It not only would not budge from the DQ ruling but removed her from the course.

She was right. Her club was OK. But says Rule 34-3, the decision of the committee is "final," a word applied to golf. In the real world, however, there are agencies more portentous than golf committees. There is, for example, our legal system. Brown and her father filed suit. There was a settlement, the terms not revealed. It is safe to assume though that her entry fee into the Futures tournament at issue was refunded. There might also have been a monetary award based on what she might have won as well as exemptions from qualifying.

The Brown case underscores the obvious, that committees consist of human beings. Therefore there will be errors, rulings issued contrary to the Rules of Golf despite an adherence to those rules. The Brown case is the only one I know of in which a committee has been successfully sued because it screwed up a ruling.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Frank Hannigan* was the executive director of the United States Golf Association from 1983-'89.*


Dustin Johnson got bad news -- but a correct ruling in the PGA Championship.