The United States Golf Association’s belated attempt at damage limitation arrived on Monday evening, with those responsible for the chaos which engulfed the second major of the year expressing “regret” over events at Oakmont.
They still, however, refuse to accept the testimony of Dustin Johnson and others that no rule breach took place on the fifth green on Sunday afternoon.
This is about as close as we will ever come to witnessing an apology from a governing body that affords itself exalted status. After the 2015 US Open at Chambers Bay, where the site and course condition were clearly unfit for purpose, that this year’s championship also had such controversy should raise serious questions about whether or not the USGA is appropriately carrying out its most high-profile role.
What has been overlooked in the Johnson fallout is that the incident which caused such a furore cuts to the very heart of where the USGA, and the R&A, continue to neglect an area harmful to golf. It might be technical, it might be delving into the realms of golf geekery, but it is vital.
Mike Davis, the USGA’s chief executive, was brimming with pre‑tournament excitement when talking about how rapid the Oakmont greens were. Even a deluge of rain – three inches in 24 hours – could not make a meaningful difference. We know this because Shane Lowry called a penalty on himself after his ball moved when he was preparing to putt on Saturday.
At Chambers Bay, the putting surfaces were ruined by a desire to make them akin to an ice wall in texture. Exhibit C: the 2015 Open Championship, where play was suspended for hours on a sun-kissed Saturday because high winds ensured golf balls would be affected on greens at the far end of the Old Course. Yes, it was blowy, but every other course on the Fife coast was continuing as normal with medal play on the same afternoon. Only the home of golf shut down. Only the home of golf had greens cut to such a borderline level. The narrative is: fast greens great, slow greens bad news. And still, there is a case for less skill actually being necessary to merely tap a ball on a certain line. As long as greens are consistent throughout any given tournament, their speed should not matter.
The trouble is, there has become a necessity for the greens to be as slippery as glass. It is seen as the most valid defence, and it is certainly the easiest, against players who can butcher even traditionally long holes. Oakmont had another barrier: ludicrous thick rough around greens, which meant chipping – a key facet of the sport – was not tested at all during the US Open.
It was therefore somehow poetic that the Johnson case blew up so spectacularly in the face of the USGA. Surprise, surprise; on a stupidly quick green, well dried out on a Sunday afternoon, the ball was not stable.
Early this month, the USGA and R&A issued a paper on driving distance in professional golf. This release insisted that “between 2003 and the end of the 2015 season, average driving distance on four of the seven tours increased about 1%, or 0.2 yards per year”. This statement, for anyone with eyes in their head, was an insult to intelligence. No problem, nothing to see here.
In insisting they were informing any debate, the bodies were trying to delude their audience into believing there is no issue. Next year the US Open will be hosted at Erin Hills, where the scorecard yardage stretches to 7,800 yards. Augusta National, one of the iconic venues in golf, has expanded to 7,400 yards – 500 more than when Jack Nicklaus famously won in 1986 – and is likely to grow further if the club can conclude a deal to purchase land behind the 13th tee. The Old Course itself has been tampered with under the highly dubious guise of architectural improvement.
The reason, a point which is staring the USGA and R&A so squarely in the face, is technology. Or, more specifically, the distance the current golf ball is being hit. If these people really want to inform debate, they should provide details as to what happened from 1990 to 2002. By the timeframe they deliberately choose, the horse had not so much bolted as trampled all over golf’s heritage.
Golf has changed standard ball composition and size before. It has banned certain club groove types, just as other sports such as the javelin have appropriately acted when technology was flying forward, literally, too quickly. The process need not be problematic.
Golf’s ruling bodies also opted to ban the anchored putting stroke, and were right to do so, but their sleeping at the wheel for a far more serious equipment issue is a glaring contradiction. It does nothing to douse the argument that manufacturers have too much power. This resonates in junior golf; emerging players do not shape shots – and can’t anyway, given the way balls are constructed – because they have no need to. Blasting it high and long generally, not quite exclusively, is the answer. At members clubs everywhere, sadly, discussions over how to make modifications aimed at offsetting how far the ball now goes are commonplace.
Last November in Shanghai the R&A’s chief executive, Martin Slumbers, took umbrage with the suggestion he was “relaxed” about matters of distance. Slumbers’s equivalent at the European Tour, Keith Pelley, sees nothing wrong whatsoever with golf balls flying as far as possible; he sees this as show business.
You could argue that Pelley’s claim was endorsed by Sunday at Oakmont. That the farce was intrinsically linked to what the USGA and R&A have allowed to happen in general to their sport is beyond question. Perhaps, for that reason alone, the epic level of negative fallout was worthwhile.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010