U.S. Open: DJ Ruling Is The Decision That Will Not Go Away

Jun 19, 2016; Oakmont, PA, USA; Dustin Johnson (left) speaks with Jack Nicklaus (right) after winning the final round of the U.S. Open golf tournament at Oakmont Country Club. Mandatory Credit: Michael Madrid-USA TODAY Sports
Jun 19, 2016; Oakmont, PA, USA; Dustin Johnson (left) speaks with Jack Nicklaus (right) after winning the final round of the U.S. Open golf tournament at Oakmont Country Club. Mandatory Credit: Michael Madrid-USA TODAY Sports /

It ended up having little to no effect on the outcome, but the USGA’s rules blunder at the U.S. Open is still being talked about.

No matter where you turn — TV, radio, online or in print — the USGA’s decision to penalize Dustin Johnson one stroke for whatever did or did not happen on the 5th green in the final round of the U.S. Open will not go away.  The reason it won’t is that the USGA contradicted itself, making a decision that appeared to be founded in nothing more than the tournament committee’s imagination or some personal feelings it had about Johnson.

For some actual facts, we should start with the changes to the rules announced by the USGA for 2016.  Their literature, which you can download here, says that in the past, a golfer was given a one-stroke penalty if a ball at rest moved after it was addressed.  The change for 2016, they said, was made so that a one-stroke penalty is given, in the USGA’s own words, “only when the facts show that the player has caused the ball to move.”

That change is at the center of the whole incident. The problem in Johnson’s case is that the USGA was working on supposition and not actual facts when they overturned the ruling made by their own rules expert, who was walking with Dustin Johnson and Lee Westwood.

The USGA extrapolated. They guessed.  They imagined. They could not see whether or not Johnson caused the ball to move. What they saw was a bad angle of enlarged video from the telecast.  There was no 100 percent cause and effect, and in deciding a national championship, the least we can expect is 100 percent certainty if a penalty is going to be given.

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Many people still fail to understand how the committee reached the decision to penalize Johnson using only the footage shown during the telecast and replayed on Golf Channel — it was from one camera angle, the only one available.  I am one of those people.  I have worked with a lot of video in my ten years of producing a golf program for television. From what I could see, Johnson’s putter blade just plain did not touch the ground.  So, by definition, he had not addressed the ball. My understanding of addressing the ball for putting or any other stroke is that the club has to be resting on the ground behind the ball.

To get proof, and to have actual facts, the camera angle would have had to be one that clearly showed the relationship between the ball and the putter blade. It would have needed to be an overhead shot or a shot from green level pointed directly at the space between ball and club. No one has that.

The angle provided showed that Johnson’s putter blade simply did not touch the ground.  It also showed someone with remarkable reflexes, noticing the ball start to move and lifting his putter up quickly so that it wouldn’t touch the ground. Really, really remarkable reflexes.

The existing camera angle was just not sufficient for the USGA to call it a “fact” and overturn the decision made by the rules official on site.  The committee did not have hard evidence.  They had opinions.  They had feelings.  They may have had an axe to grind against Johnson for something about which we are unaware. Maybe they were just mad because he was hitting wedge into so many greens.  Maybe they didn’t like the length of his drives or the color of his shirt. Whatever the reason, it had nothing to do with the “facts” that they had available.

If the putter had been grounded — if Johnson had, as the terminology goes, “addressed the ball” by putting the putter on the surface of the green behind the ball — and then the ball had moved, the USGA might have had reason to say that he caused it.

But in Johnson’s case, his putter was not on the ground.

Jack Nicklaus spent a career not grounding his clubs before he hit for just that reason.

Crazily enough, that same day at the U.S. Open, Frenchman Romain Wattel did ground his putter prior to attempting a putt and noticed his ball move. The official with his group did not believe he made it move, and he was NOT penalized a stroke.

The USGA can’t have it both ways in two different groups on the same day. In a statement sent out to the media by the USGA, the organization said, in part, “Our officials reviewed the video of Dustin on the fifth green and determined that based on the weight of the evidence, it was more likely than not that Dustin caused his ball to move. Dustin’s putter contacted the ground at the side of the ball, and almost immediately after, the ball moved.”

“Weight of the evidence” is not the same as “only when the facts show.”

Instead of relying on provable facts, the USGA merely surmised that Johnson must have moved the ball and, in essence, accused him of being untruthful, despite what Lee Westwood and the USGA official on-site said when the situation occurred.  They extrapolated.  They guessed.  They imagined.  They assumed. They did not have facts.

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  • Here’s what Johnson knows.

    “On the 5th green, the rules official, I called him over and told him what happened,” Johnson explained, sitting behind the winner’s podium in the media center Sunday night. “Lee [Westwood] was standing right there. He saw it. So we both agreed that I didn’t cause the ball to move. So I just played on from there with no penalty.”

    Or so he thought.

    Jack Nicklaus said to Golf Channel that he thought the situation was unfair to Johnson.

    “When you have a situation where the official was there and said, ‘Did you cause it to move?’ and he says, ‘No,’ then that should be the end of the story,” Nicklaus said. “How’s he supposed to know what caused it to move? You’ve got greens out there with spike marks and pitches. The ball can move at any time.”

    Golf Digest contacted former PGA Tour commissioner Deane Beman for his opinion on the subject.  He said, “What ever the outcome it needed to be made in a much more timely manner. They became the victims of their own folly. Trying to protect par with 14 greens speed is not the best way to protect par. His ball moving was just one of many. When you play with fire you get burned.”

    The only fortunate thing in this USGA debacle is that Johnson was far enough ahead that the Committee’s poor decision-making didn’t keep him out of the victory circle.  That could have created enough of a firestorm to end the USGA’s role as the rules body for the PGA Tour.

    Next: Top 20 U.S. Open Triumphs

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