By Tyler Olson
It was going so well. So. Well. The 2016 US Open was going to be one for the books. The 624th ranked golfer in the world, Andrew Landry, was leading for half the tournament. Some of the best to never win majors, including fan favorites Dustin Johnson, Lee Westwood and Sergio Garcia were in contention on the final day. Oakmont was in great condition and despite the rain it proved to be a tough but fair test for the best golfers in the world. The back nine on Sunday began with as much tension, fanfare, and great golf as would be expected from the final round of a major. The cauliflower greens and concrete fairways that marred the 2015 Open in Chambers Bay were fading into the past like a distant memory. Then it happened. The USGA managed to foul up again and send the US Open down the rabbit hole of controversy.
On the fifth hole, Dustin Johnson was about to address his ball when it rolled backwards just a fraction of an inch. He did the right thing and called over the official to alert him of the problem. Because it was clear that Dustin had neither touched his ball nor caused it to move when he soled his putter beside it, the official instructed Dustin to play the ball from the new spot and that he would not incur a penalty. However, on the twelfth tee, an official approached him and informed him that after video review, he may be penalized for the ball moving back on the fifth. Not that he would incur the penalty, but that he might. Everyone’s first reaction was confusion. How could there even be a thought of a penalty if the video evidence was so clear? The greens were stimping off the charts as is usual for a US Open and the ball was resting on a severe slope, so clearly it was just a side effect of course conditions. The same exact thing happened earlier in the day to Frenchman Romain Wattell, except he had actually addressed the ball before it moved. Johnson’s putter was still about a half an inch off the ground, yet the USGA penalized him and not Wattell. Then, when it was quite clear the USGA rules heads intended to penalize Johnson regardless, but left the decision up in the air through the entire back nine, the confusion turned to outrage.
Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth, and even Ernie Els tweeted in outrage that the USGA was cluttering not only Dustin’s head, but those of all his competitors with ambiguity as to what the score of the leader actually was heading into the most important part of the tournament. If you’re making the Big Easy himself incensed, you are doing something seriously wrong. Here’s just a sample of the anger from DJ’s fellow players:
If I get a text from my friends that they want to go to a restaurant that I don’t like for dinner in the middle of a round, that’s enough to send me into a tailspin of shanks and duck-hooks, so I can’t imagine the nerves Dustin Johnson and the rest of the field were feeling after being told that the ruling wouldn’t be handed down until after the round. Webb Simpson said it best with his tweet on the matter, “Telling a golfer mid-round(!) about a potential one shot penalty would cost most about 4 shots in anxiety. Not for @DJohsnonPGA. Huge congrats.”
Luckily for the USGA and the rest of us, Johnson was totally unflappable and managed to finish the round four shots ahead of the field. Even though the USGA did end up enforcing the not-a-penalty penalty on him, it wasn’t enough to affect the outcome of the tournament. Thank God. Just imagine the firestorm that would be going on today if that penalty had forced a playoff that DJ ended up losing. The legitimacy of the US Open as a major could have been permanently harmed.
That being said, the US Open, the USGA, and the game of golf itself did not escape Sunday unscathed. This was the second consecutive US Open marred by the actions and aptitude of the USGA in putting on the tournament, but was luckily saved by great play down the stretch. Just read last year’s US Open Recap in case you’ve already forgotten. Next year’s Open and several after that will have to go off without a hitch to avoid compounding of these mistakes.
The real victim here was golf itself. The USGA has made it its mission to “Grow the Game” and inspire more and more people to pick up a club. The six million commercials during the tournament talking about how golf is “everyone’s game” made that very clear. However, nobody is going to wake up the day after watching that rules fiasco and think, “Man, I really wanna play golf now. It seems like such a fun thing to do!” Sunday did nothing but reinforce the misconception that golf is an impenetrable sport run by old rich dudes in ugly blazers and official dress shirts. Not exactly the kind of thing that’s very popular in the twenty-first century.
Luckily, while some clubs and leading organizations may still be struggling to make it past the year 1950, they are not “golf”. Golf is made up of all the pros, journalists that cover the pros, charity organizations, clubs, courses, and amateur golfers in the world. Where the USGA and others are failing, we can pick up the slack. Pros like McIlroy, Spieth, Dustin Johnson, Rickie Fowler, and even some of the older guys like Phil go on TV every week and show the everyone how fun golf really is by having a blast when they play it. Their presence on social media along with others like the Bryan Bros, Jamie Sadlowski, and Paige Spiranac brings the game to the younger generation. Courses can reach out to their communities and grow the game on a local level. Even individuals can advocate for golf just by bringing a friend out to the driving range for the first time. It’s our game, and it’s our job to preserve it.