Why can't they be friends?
Dustin Johnson lost another major championship in heartbreaking and befuddling fashion, this time by a single stroke, after the awkward handling of a one-stroke penalty that was issued to the No. 1 player in the world when officials ultimately determined—despite protests from Johnson, his playing partner, Lee Westwood, and seemingly the majority of folks watching the broadcast—that he had caused his ball to move as he prepared to putt on the fifth hole of the final round of the 116th U.S. Open at Oakmont Country Club.
In protest, a number of notable players have announced they will be skipping the U.S. Open at Erin Hills.
This, of course, is not how the events of June 19, 2016 played out—except for the part where Johnson was ultimately dinged a stroke. The penalty came despite the rules official walking with the eventual champion telling him that there was no issue, only to have another official inform him, on the 12th hole and at a critical juncture of the championship, that he did indeed have a problem.
“There could’ve been serious consequences,” says one major champion who finished in the top 20 that week. “There was talk if Dustin had lost because of the penalty that some players might’ve skipped this year’s tournament.”
Other players corroborated the story. Said one, “There was a heated feeling in the locker room [among the tour pros] toward the USGA.”
Fortunately, it never came to that. Johnson won by three strokes. The only frustration he showed was afterward, upon reviewing the infraction with USGA officials, when he argued that his putter couldn’t have possibly caused the ball to move (a position Westwood seconded). Eventually, Johnson said, in rather terse words, that he didn’t care, asking officials instead if he could just have his damn trophy.
We’ll never really know whether or not any player, much less some of the game’s biggest stars, might have staged what would have amounted to a walk out for this year’s Open. But several players seemingly liked the thought—and perhaps still do—of sending a message to the USGA over what was the latest in a disconcerting series of gaffes from the association: Enough is enough.
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Tour pros can sometimes sound a lot like NBA players crying foul any time they miss a shot when someone is within arm’s length, and not everyone is going to be pleased all of the time. That’s golf. With that in mind, all of the players Golf Digest canvased in recent weeks to get their thoughts about the governing body agreed that the intentions of the USGA and, by extension, its executive director, Mike Davis, come from the right place.
However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t frustrations with the association. Generally speaking, the criticisms fall into one of three broad areas:
• Course selection and the unnecessarily difficult setups for the Open.
• Administration of its championships.
• A disconnect between the association that oversees the recreational side of the game and those who are playing the sport for a living.
“Their ego is too big,” said one player, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, of USGA officials in general. “The self appointed position of their importance has let that happen.”
Added another player who has competed in only a handful of U.S. Opens but enough to have developed a telling impression: “It’s very much like they’re trying to be a parent looking down on children. You’re not going to get the best product that way.”
To wit, players recite various incidents from past Opens as examples of the association getting in its own way, to the detriment of the competitors and the championship. In addition to Sunday at Oakmont, among the more recent include:
• The hole location atop a crest on the 18th hole at Olympic Club drew the ire of many, most memorably Payne Stewart, during the 1998 U.S. Open, as many players would up with longer second putts if their first attempt didn’t make it up the hill.
• In 2004 at Shinnecock Hills, the course became so dried out by the final round that the grounds crew had to water holes between groups, with the green on the seventh hole becoming nearly unplayable. “It was a great deal embarrassing,” former USGA executive director Frank Hannigan would later say.
• Two years ago at Chambers Bay, Henrik Stenson compared the bumpy greens to broccoli and Rory McIlroy to cauliflower. Colin Montgomerie, Ian Poulter and Billy Horschel were also severely critical of the putting surfaces, particularly on the sixth hole, where there were spots of little-to-no grass.
Mind you, those are the outward facing issues that fans as well as players could see in plain sight. For some competitors, the gripes also lean toward logistical issues they see in the running of one of the biggest championships in golf and how, in their minds, USGA officials make things more difficult than need be. Or, even worse, overstep on matters.
Players still fume about how at Merion in 2013, they were told to leave the driving range, which was on the venue’s West Course, 30 minutes before their tee time to allow for any potential traffic jams as vans shuttled them over to the East Course.
And last year, one player spoke about a USGA rules official offering his thoughts on a ruling for a drop in the final round even though his input was never sought by anyone in the group and all the players were in agreement on where the player should drop, which differed widely from the official who, according to the player, was out of position.
“We’re spoiled by an organization [the PGA Tour] that does this week in and week out,” said one player whose resume includes wins at USGA-run events while an amateur. “That’s where ego comes in. They are the governing body in the game of golf, so [they think] they must know more than us.”
“They’re in a difficult position,” says Geoff Ogilvy, the 2006 U.S. Open champion. “Nobody loves the boss, and in some ways they’re the boss of golf, and it’s a thankless position. No one thanks them when there’s a good U.S. Open. They only get criticized when there’s a bad one.”
USGA officials would argue that the bad ones are rare. They’d also say that in trying to put on the national championship, their end often justifies their means. Davis routinely and consistently explains that the directive for the Open is to identify the game’s best by putting on the “ultimate” test in golf. To do so, by nature, requires that they are closer to the line than any other major.
In other words, difficulty is in the DNA, and sometimes that might mean making players uncomfortable. But that doesn’t mean that the USGA is immune to criticism.
“When we look at U.S. Open sites, first and foremost, I can assure you we are looking at the golf course,” he said. “Can it truly test the world’s best players? So that … you know, that’s the top thing.”
As to players’ assumptions that the USGA will do anything in its power to prevent golfers from breaking par on a given day or week, Davis insists that’s a misconception, too.
“So much of the score really does have to do with Mother Nature,” he said. “Think about the last two Opens at Oakmont; that golf course was set up almost identical. The only difference was one year you had a soft Oakmont, the other year it was a firm Oakmont.” Four under was the winning score last year on a soggy Oakmont, versus five over when it was firm in 2007.
Davis continued: “Think back to the U.S. Open that Tiger Woods won [in 2000]. He shot 12 under there. That was one of the great U.S. Opens we’ve ever seen. He won by 15 shots, but we celebrated—the whole world celebrated there. I know people get caught up with this even-par thing. … We don’t even talk about it. What we do talk about is making sure we can adjust the course. If there’s soft conditions, then how can we really [adjust]. Maybe we tuck a hole location a little bit more versus if we get real firm conditions and it gets windy. … It really isn’t about the score. It’s about just setting the golf course up properly.”
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Beyond simply how it conducts its championships, the administration of the Rules of Golf is another area that USGA officials (along with their colleagues at the R&A) find themselves taking heat for.
Most recently, at the LPGA’s first major of the year, the ANA Inspiration, Lexi Thompson was hit with a four-stroke penalty that stemmed from a rules incident that was discovered a day later and only because of an email sent by a viewer watching on TV. The USGA doesn’t run the event, but because it oversees the rules, that allowed the association to come under criticism when Thompson ended up losing the tournament—unfairly in the minds of many—in a playoff.
“It seems more recently rules have become a huge problem in golf and [the USGA] is in charge of those,” said Adam Scott. “Times have changed in golf with television and high definition. They’re never thinking ahead of what could happen so they have no protocol how to deal with the situation.
“You can’t be out there not knowing what score you’re at. How do you hit the next shot or make the right decision? … It’s not under control, and it needs to be.”
Added another major winner: “Their priorities are not the right ones all the time. It might be the right ones for them, but in the big picture of the game of golf and all that goes along with that, they’re looking at [them] with the wrong angles.”
To the USGA’s credit, after the DJ rules issue at Oakmont and again shortly after the Thompson affair at the ANA Inspiration, the governing body, along with the R&A, acted more swiftly than is its habit to try to remedy situations in which the rules did seem unfair. Now in place is a local rule that takes away any penalty for the accidental movement of a golf ball.
“There was a positive result from the DJ situation,” Davis recently said in Golf Digest. “I told my colleagues at the R&A, ‘This rule about the ball moving on the green continues to plague us. It’s burned the tours, and it makes the rules look stupid.’ So we fast-forwarded a rule change, which we wouldn’t have fast-forwarded without what happened at Oakmont.”
The use of video review also has been limited, with the USGA forming a working group (with participation from the professional tours) to establish the very protocol Scott seems to be seeking.
Moreover, the USGA and R&A announced in March plans for a sweeping overhaul to the Rules of Golf to make them more logical and easier to understand.
Such steps seem to be moves in the right direction, but players see the need for more, particularly regarding the conduct of the championship. Their biggest desire? That the USGA get more input from those who play the game for a living and those who put on professional tournaments on a regular basis.
“The PGA of America works with the tour a lot more,” contends one player. “But maybe the USGA looks at themselves as they don’t want to be friends because they have to make all these decisions.”
Yes, the USGA must make decisions, but Davis has said they don’t want to do that unilaterally. In the wake of Oakmont, Davis and other key USGA officials have made a point to improve their communication, reach out to players more frequently and be present at more tour events. More input from officials at the tour is also being sought.
As for course selection and setup, this appears to be an area where there remains a divide. The issue arose again this week when several players—most notably Kevin Na—took to social media to highlight the prominent fescue grasses at Erin Hills, expressing their shock and disappointment with how long and thick it had grown in some areas.
“I think we’ve gotten to a point where it is what it is,” said Ryan Moore on the way the USGA handles course setups. “They’re not going to change the way they do things.”
Maybe, but maybe not. Intriguingly on Tuesday, the USGA decided to have some of the fescue cut down, insisting that this was part of a strategic plan rather than any pressure from players. Whatever the reasoning, it seemed the two sides inched closer together.
“Forget about score,” Ogilvy said. “At some courses, 16 under will be a good score, some it will be six over. The mentality should be more on identifying the most complete player.”