Why Dustin Johnson’s US Open win was spoiled by the USGA’s epic rules farce

PGA: U.S. Open - Third Round

Let us briefly visit a land where common sense prevails.

There, a significant sporting occasion would not be thrown into utter confusion in front of a worldwide audience at its key phase. There, a golf ball placed on a surface closely resembling a marble fireplace in texture may well move. There, the glaring evidence of no advantage either being sought or claimed would never result in a penalty.

Back in the real world of golf, a parallel universe sadly exists. Today we should be hailing Dustin Johnson’s major breakthrough. Arguably the most gifted American golfer of his time has finally offset years of underachievement, with the kind of victory he should have been accustomed to long ago. Instead, the shambles presided over by the United States Golf Association (USGA) for the second major of 2016 will dominate conversation. So it should, as other sports look on and laugh.

To the watching world the scene was ludicrous. To recap, a rules official informed Johnson that he would not be assessed for a penalty stroke after the ball moved when he addressed a putt on the 5th green. On the 12th tee, Johnson was told a decision would be made at the end of his round, forcing the player to complete the final six holes not knowing whether the assessment would take place or not. When the round was completed, Johnson was penalised a stroke and signed for a one-under-par 69, to win by three shots.

A sport seeking to emerge from dark age prejudice had once again taken an AK-47 to its foot, proving itself petty and unfathomable. Johnson arrived at the final holes of the biggest round of his life not knowing what his score was. Nobody watching on, including fellow competitors, knew for sure either.

It was akin to a cup final being halted with five minutes to go as officials tell the teams that the only goal of the match could, maybe, possibly be wiped out at full-time. Horse racing holds stewards enquiries, but not after the leading jockey has been informed three furlongs from home. Golf makes its return to the Olympics this summer; even the IOC would raise an eyebrow if a Johnson-esque saga were to be presided over by the USGA and its chums at the R&A. Suffice to say, it won’t be.

There has long been a key problem with the US Open; that of the man running the tournament, Mike Davis, carrying a higher profile than most of the participants. Davis had enjoyed – or endured – one of his quieter tournaments before the epic farce that dominated Sunday afternoon.

The USGA had both a problem and a victory. Johnson’s refusal – or, being cruel, inability – to properly berate them for the backdrop to his triumph was a cause for governing body relief. Unfortunately for the USGA, Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth, Rickie Fowler and others were going full throttle in criticism of what was unfolding at Oakmont. These players are standard bearers, not prone to ranting but capable of swaying general opinion. Good on them for using their respective platforms.

In this instance, the trio barely needed to. Johnson’s scenario can be split into two, neither of which does the USGA any credit.

To start, the ruling itself. The USGA was adamant in explanation of the affair that it sticks solely to rules which cannot be altered. That is undermined entirely by the scores of occasions in which discretion has been used; quite often, ironically, to protect golfing legislators. Tiger Woods and the Masters of 2013 springs immediately to mind.

The next time those presiding over golf preach about integrity and trust as a foundation – and they will – the only response is wild laughter. Johnson, his vastly experienced playing partner, Lee Westwood, and the well-respected caddie Billy Foster were all perfectly content that the US Open champion didn’t cause his ball to move during the now infamous episode on Oakmont’s 5th green. As, of course, was the USGA referee, called upon immediately by Johnson.

The subsequent assertion that Johnson did trigger the tiny ball movement makes a mockery of the testimony of those involved at the time, including the referee. It also could never possibly be proven that Johnson’s laying of a putter adjacent to the ball meant it changed position by a matter of millimetres. Where, legitimately, could this allegation end? That someone’s size 12 feet forced a change in ball position while they were walking around to line up a putt? A lawyer would drive a coach and horses through the USGA’s assumption – and it was an assumption – just as a player such as Spieth would inevitably have vehemently challenged it even in victory.

Elements of humour understandably derive from the USGA being so relaxed about the driving of golf balls by Johnson and others well in excess of 300 yards, to an overwhelmingly negative effect for the game, while a hair’s breadth green move ensures a need to summon the blazers around a high definition television screen.

Worse still was the USGA’s treatment not only of Johnson but others looking to lift the trophy. The administrators allowed confusion to reign. The explanation for this was nonsensical; that some sort of post-round meeting with Johnson was essential before a sanction could be issued. It was glaring by the time Johnson was spoken to on the 12th that the USGA had decided upon a penalty and, of course, that nothing the player said would alter their plans. Even at that juncture, seven holes on, face could have been saved and the tournament allowed a standard conclusion if one stroke had been added to Johnson’s score.

Johnson, of course, did the USGA a massive favour. Someone never famed for mental strength shut out background noise to ultimately play one of the finest closing stretches in US Open history. The penalty didn’t matter. Johnson didn’t really care about accepting it, even if the fact it was applied at all to the inevitable victor was hilariously po-faced.

Golf deserves better than to be hauled into disrepute by those supposed to be its custodians. Just because Johnson’s overriding emotion was relief, the position he was placed in shouldn’t be forgotten in a hurry. Amateurs running professional pursuits has never seemed like a logical alliance.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Ewan Murray at Oakmont, for The Guardian on Monday 20th June 2016 09.15 Europe/London

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010