By Ken Reed

On Sunday afternoon, in the biggest golf tournament in the United States, Dustin Johnson beat the field and the United States Golf Association (U.S.G.A.) rules officials.

In a situation that can only be described as bizarre, Dustin Johnson was told that he may or may not be assessed a penalty after his round was over for something he might or might not have done.

A U.S.G.A. rules official approached Johnson on the 12th tee and told him that he might be given a penalty stroke for something that happened on the fifth hole. It was on the fifth green that Johnson was lining up a putt. As he was about to place his putter behind the ball, it inexplicably moved a partial rotation backwards. Johnson stepped back and called a rules official. After a short discussion, the rules official determined that Johnson had not caused his ball to move and that he could play on without a penalty stroke being assessed.

However, as Johnson continued to play his final round, U.S.G.A. officials were apparently looking closely at the television replay of Johnson approaching the putt in question on the fifth green. They zoomed in to try and get a better look. Still, they couldn’t determine what caused the ball to move. So, on the 12th green, U.S.G.A. managing director Jeff Hall told Johnson that they would watch the video together after the round and then a final determination would be made. Hall made it clear that a penalty stroke for Johnson was now a real possibility. Johnson said he understood and walked to the 13th tee with an added dose of pressure on his mind. At some point, other players in contention for the U.S. Open crown were apprised of the Johnson situation.

Here’s the bottom line: In the country’s biggest golf tournament, on the back nine of the final round, nobody knew what Johnson’s score was. Was he leading? Or tied? Would Johnson or a competitor need a birdie on the final hole to tie or win? Thanks to the U.S.G.A. nobody knew.

“For the next seven holes, Johnson did not know how many strokes ahead of the field he needed to be to claim victory,” wrote Bill Pennington for The New York Times.

“The rest of the field did not know whether they needed to surpass Johnson or tie him to win. How many on-course decisions — by Johnson and others — might have been affected by the notion that the leaderboard scores were just an approximation?”

The rule in question, and/or the implementation of the rule, needs to be changed. What the U.S.G.A. did Sunday was unnecessary, and unfair, to Johnson, the field and fans watching on TV.

Pressure felt during a sports competition might never be greater than it is on the back nine of a major golf championship. For the U.S.G.A. to toss the possibility of a penalty on Johnson’s back as he played his last seven holes qualifies as cruel and unusual in SportsWorld.

The U.S.G.A. eventually gave Johnson a penalty in the scorer’s tent after the 18th hole. Fortunately, for Johnson — and the U.S.G.A. — the penalty stroke ended up not effecting the outcome.

But moving forward, the U.S.G.A. must make the necessary changes to ensure this type of debacle doesn’t occur again.

Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans


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