The rules of golf are a convenient punching bag when bad things happen to good players. It’s easy for journalists and fans to bemoan the complexity of the rules. After all, to fully understand the relatively thin rulebook you need to order the voluminous “Decisions on the Rules of Golf” from the USGA, which explains the application of the rules to hundreds of real-life situations. It’s not unlike what I did in law school, reading court decisions to understand how the laws apply — except it’s more fun.
But if you really study them, the rules make sense. Sure, there are some complexities, but that’s the price of writing precise rules to try to cover every situation that might occur on the golf course. And they are not set in stone; when problems surface over time the rules can be amended (on a four-year cycle by the USGA and the R&A). Between rules revisions, new rules decisions are issued when clarifications are needed.
However, another issue has come under scrutiny in recent years: the administration of the rules by tournament officials. The official’s role has been complicated by the advent of pervasive cameras which record high-definition images that allow review of seemingly imperceptible events, such as the slight movement of a ball on a green. The rules have always permitted officials to use any available evidence in making a ruling; now they are trapped by technology.
Rules officials at the 2013 Masters handled a situation with Tiger Woods so poorly that he ultimately escaped disqualification. Officials (alerted by a television viewer) initially ruled that Woods did not take an improper drop on the 15th hole, but never brought the situation to his attention. The next morning, they reviewed the video again and changed their mind (applying a penalty), but reasoned that disqualification was inappropriate (under several rules
decisions) because they had failed to talk with Wood before he signed his card.
But that was a minor lapse compared to the USGA’s handling of Dustin Johnson’s penalty in the final round of this year’s U.S. Open at Oakmont. On the fifth green, Johnson noticed his ball move slightly (not an uncommon occurrence on the absurdly fast greens) as he was preparing to putt. He summoned an official, who determined that no infraction had occurred. Later, officials reviewed the videotape and concluded that, although the tape was not dispositive, Johnson had likely caused the ball movement when he grounded his putter next to the ball.
Ironically, the Johnson controversy resulted from a player-friendly rule change that became effective this year. Under the old rule (18-2b), a player was deemed to move the ball if it moved after address, and incurred a penalty. Now, officials must examine all the facts and circumstances to determine whether it was “more likely than not” that the player’s actions caused the ball to move. So, while many players will escape unfair penalties when balls spontaneously move on fast greens in windy conditions after address, the price for that lenience is that officials will sometimes face difficult calls, like in Johnson’s case. It’s hard to see how the rule itself could be modified to avoid this.
The problem at Oakmont, then, was not the rule but how the rule was administered. USGA officials informed Johnson on the twelfth green that the incident had been reviewed and a penalty might be imposed, but delayed making a decision until after he completed his round. This left Johnson, his competitors, and the golf world in limbo as to the status of the championship. The USGA should have assessed the penalty immediately after reviewing the tape; nothing was to be gained by further discussing the incident with Johnson, who remained adamant that he did not cause the ball to move.
It is rare for the USGA to admit shortcomings, but following the U.S. Open it issued a statement expressing regret for the distraction caused by the delay in making a ruling, which created “unnecessary ambiguity” for Johnson and other players. The USGA pledged to examine its procedures for the timing of video review and communication with players.
Subsequently, on the eve of the U.S. Women’s Open, USGA senior managing director of championships John Bodenhamer reiterated the plans to overhaul procedures. Bodenhamer said the USGA “will expedite decision making throughout the process” and “communicate with players in a decisive manner.” “We’ve committed to really look at everything across the board, with all our processes,” he emphasized.
Officials are under pressure, particularly when a national championship is on the line, to get a ruling right, and are by their nature cautious and prone to leave no stone unturned. However, rulings also have to be timely. The Johnson incident vividly presented the tension between those competing concerns. Time will tell whether the USGA and other golf organizations will develop procedures to avoid such problems in the future. So far, we have vague commitments, but no details, from the USGA