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U.S. Open 2021: How a three-shot slow-play penalty cost one tour pro a spot at Torrey Pines

June 10, 2021

Octavio Passos

Pace-of-play crusaders may have a new paragon in the Washington State Golf Association. Family, friends and fans of John Catlin, currently 85th in the Official World Golf Ranking and a three-time winner on the European Tour in the last eight months, may have a new foe.

It’s that state association that was responsible for operating and administering rules at the U.S. Open Final Qualifying site at Meadow Springs Country Club in Richland, Wash., earlier this week. That’s where Catlin, a favorite of sorts given the small 45-man field competing and his recent run at the highest levels of the game, finished with a two-under 142 to fall two shots short of a potential playoff for the site’s second spot in the field at the 121st U.S. Open.

What the leader board does not show and Catlin’s scorecard does not call out is that the 142 score includes three penalty strokes for pace-of-play violations. The three shots were blanket penalties officials gave everyone in Catlin’s three-player group for missed timing checkpoints. For Catlin, subtracting those three strokes would be enough to put him clear onto the tee sheet at Torrey Pines next Thursday.

“That decision cost me the Open,” Catlin said in a message earlier this week. He added that one playing partner in his threesome shot 85 and the group also had to wait 15 minutes for a ruling. So what actually happened and what went into the decision, one that appears severe even for the strident slow-play vigilantes?

“The group that Mr. Catlin was playing in missed all four pace-of-play checkpoints, which were located at holes 13, 18, 4 and 9,” said Scotty Crouthamel, Senior Director of Rules & Competition for Championships at the Washington Golf Association.

The 15-minute wait for a ruling that Catlin cited was factored into the timing of their group, according to Crouthamel. “Because of the time spent on the ruling early in the round, the group appealed to the Pace of Play Review Committee at scoring, and the first missed checkpoint was waived even though the time deducted from the ruling would have still resulted in a missed checkpoint,” he said. “The group was given additional leniency and the benefit of the doubt at the first missed checkpoint.”

So the first of four missed checkpoints was waived. But no such accommodation was made later in the group’s first of its two rounds during what is a 36-hole test now branded as “golf’s longest day.” The three subsequent missed checkpoints resulted in a warning, a one-stroke penalty and then an additional two-stroke penalty at the holes where the checkpoint breaches occurred. Catlin said the penalty strokes were added to his card at holes 4 and 9 at Meadow Springs. The pace-of-play policy calls for disqualification for a fourth missed checkpoint.

In this instance, every player in the group that misses the checkpoints is hit with warnings and penalty strokes, as opposed to any individual player. Catlin played with Casey Adams and Bryan Harris, who, according to Washington Golf, was disqualified for the day after he signed his scorecard without the penalties added and then chose not to add them or change his card before leaving the scoring area. Harris went out in 47 and posted the 85 Catlin referenced before he was DQ’d for the second round. As a safeguard or recourse for a player who feels he is being held back by a slow partner, a “Rules Rover” can be called in to monitor a “non-responsive fellow competitor” within the group. No one in the group requested such a rover, according to Crouthamel.

Catlin is not some dreamer or mini-tour journeyman who’s prevalent at these qualifying sites, part of what makes the process so unique in golf. He’s now a top 100 player in the world, fresh off a start at the PGA Championship at the Ocean Course. That was his first career major championship start, and also where he incurred a one-stroke penalty for slow play from the PGA of America. It was the first slow-play penalty handed out at a men's major since the 2013 Open Championship, where Hideki Matsuyama was dinged with one in the third round at Muirfield.

Setting aside the impact of “costing” someone a spot in the U.S. Open, assessing three penalty shots is among the more extreme punishments given out in the world of high level golf, where slow-play rules can become a minefield of subjective administration that tends to result mostly in warnings and fines. Word of the penalty spread around Meadow Springs and surprised fellow competitors, observers and club members who were on the ground for one of only two qualifying sites in the Pacific time zone.

The Washington state policy and its application during a U.S. Open qualifier may feel draconian to some and exemplary to others. Pace of play is a never-ending hot topic and source of moaning at both the professional and recreational levels. Crouthamel, however, felt confident that they had administered the policy fairly and are comfortable with the impact.

“In the monitoring that was done, it was not noted that the players were making any extra effort to make up time or regain position,” Crouthamel said. “Time for ball searches, rulings, and walking time between holes is included in the allotted time given to finish each hole and the round and when a group falls behind, regardless of the reason, they must regain their position. This policy was administered equally across the entire field.”

If you believe this should be the model for competitive tour events everywhere, you would not be alone. Many believe penalty strokes spur action. In this instance, it was the difference between a spot in the U.S. Open and a longshot second alternate position for one of the strongest players on the European Tour this past year.