Golf.com's Oral History Of The '16 U.S. Open Rules Controversy

As always I urge you to hit the link to Golf.com's oral history of last year's U.S. Open rules controversy to get full context. It's a fascinating read both because of the views expressed and by those who were not quoted from the USGA. 

Michael Bamberger, Jessica Marksbury, Josh Sens, Alan Shipnuck, Marika Washchyshyn and Sean Zak offered the reporting and clipping from public comments.

The story is encouraging for those not wanting to see a repeat, as John Bodenhamer's comments representing the USGA suggest lessons have been learned, actions taken and a process in place for future incidents.

Discouraging, however, is that a year later no one but the officials who decided to penalize Dustin Johnson for causing his ball to move on the 5th green can say they see evidence of the violation.

We've since seen two changes in the rules to address this (and here), and Johnson's word would be taken if this all happened again. Again, I suggest reading the entire oral history if this topic interests you. However a few key comments stood out that I found worthy of noting, starting with this from the Fox perspective:

DAVID FAY (former USGA executive director and rules analyst for Fox Sports): On Sunday morning, I was watching from the booth, and [French golfer] Romain Wattel's ball moved on the 2nd green. It looked like he caused the ball to move and there was going to be a penalty. It appeared that it was going to be an issue. But the official with that group, Lew Blakey, is one of the best there is. And he was right on the case and he gave a decision right away. He said something to the effect of, "Well, the wind was blowing in such and such a direction and with the slope of the green … there was no way he was going to assess a penalty." I remember saying after that, "Well, fellas, now at least you have template for how this should be handled in the unlikely event that anything like this happens later in the day."

And this from Fox Sports producer Mark Loomis.

LOOMIS: We had the good fortune of being there live for it and having a microphone in the hole. I think those two things simplified it for us. If you look back at the video, at the time it seemed like everybody agreed that he hadn't caused the ball to move.

This is key to note for the next rules issue:

BODENHAMER: The next day [after the Open], Mike Davis tasked me to review what had happened and to come up with proposals to make sure nothing like that happened again. We determined that it took us too long to make a decision, and we've remedied that. We've remedied how we mobilize our rules officials and how we review video evidence. In 17 days, we had a whole new line of procedures in place to make sure that nothing like that ever happens again.

This from SI writer Alan Shipnuck is a handy reminder:

SHIPNUCK: The USGA would have never recovered if Dustin had this tournament taken away from him. I hope the blue coats say a little prayer every day for Dustin Johnson. As for DJ, this guy is more mentally tough than we give him credit for. He's taken so many punches to the solar plexus, and he just keeps coming back. I'm not sure how many players could have survived that. It made the victory that much sweeter.

And then there is this from two-time U.S. Open champion Curtis Strange, who was working for Fox and says the USGA "hijacked" the championship.

STRANGE: When it was over, the deep feeling I had was disappointment. This is our national championship. And it was hijacked by the governors of the game. The USGA clearly admits this: They should have told Dustin on the spot. That's why I say it was hijacked. Because nobody knew what was going on.

And...

STRANGE: It should have never have been a penalty. Because when you have greens that are 14 on the Stimpmeter, anything can cause that ball to move. You can be 15 feet away and cause that ball to move. That's why they changed the rule, and it's a good thing they did.

Roundup 2016: Year In Review Stories And A Few Thoughts

I've been taking in and enjoying the year-end golf summaries, mostly to shield myself from news that makes me want to have John Oliver's '16 tribute on a running loop. As is always the golf media custom, various writers emptied their notebooks and recalled moments that resonated long after they packed up their laptops. While taking in their thoughts I drew a few conclusions, which, if you'll indulge, I'll share before throwing a few good year-end links your way.

2016 lived up to its billing: a stellar-but-bloated schedule, plenty of sensational tournament venues and a continued refinement of course architectural tastes skewing toward the natural. But the sadness of Arnold Palmer's passing, which I'm not sure we got to completely take in quietly, just reinforced the sense that there is too much golf and it all went on way too long.

In spite of the pitiful WD's by Spieth, McIlroy and friends, The Olympics exceeded expectations while The Open Championship will go down as a classic (John Huggan and Dave Shedloski have put together a truncated oral history of Troon 2016).

For Golfweek's Alistair Tait, those were the two biggest takeaways in his eyes and he offers two anecdotes from each.

The women's side keeps producing young talent but now even Lydia Ko is showing signs of impatience that either could propel her to another level, or rapidly add her to a list of almost-legend status. This overall impatience by and for the youth to take center stage should be a more disconcerting sign for golf given how much damage it's done in tennis, but the desperation to ride some under 25-year-old coattails ignores that the average age of the men's major winners in 2016 was..34.

On a grander entertainment scale, fewer players and even fewer fans are clamoring for tournament officials to humiliate players via course setup to compensate for inadequacies in their own golf games. Woohoo! Yes, we still have too many green speed fiascos to mask the distance issue, but we also have fewer four-inch rough weeks and grind-it-out bogey-fests.

This increased clamoring for player-produced drama leads to a more positive energy when we tune in to watch golf. The effect has to seep down to the everyday game, no? 

Consider the incredible outrage over the USGA's difficult-to-rationalize handling of Dustin Johnson and how quickly the public response produced a local rule introduction that will restore some sanity (though it still won't slow down greens). A less cynical, more sensible golfing public should take a bow.

The sport saw minor inroads on the pace-of-play plague and with the greatest single roadblock to progress just a few hours from retirement (woohoo 2!), we may see real reform in 2017. I sense an overall shift in values for the sport: golf is no longer seen by its followers as a sport of inevitable punishment separated by bursts of fun.  It is now expected to be one that aspires to be a lifestyle activity that is fun, sensible and responsible to be part of. Progress!

Obviously this is generational and the infusion of many "millennial" values has meshed nicely with the "artisanal" trends that had already begun to reimagine design and experiential elements that inspire our passion for the sport. However, I can't help but think of 2016 without thinking of the incessant desperation the sport has shown in trying to appeal to a new generation while ignoring an aging demographic that loves the sport. In trying so pathetically to be cool to the kids the sport so often comes off as pathetic to the kids. If there's one thing we know about millennials, it's that we don't know what they really like. But they have shown a love for pursuits with soul, timelessness and some backbone. Golf should act more comfortable in its shoes.

Ultimately the genius of golf is that it can be played and loved by people of all generations. Probably never a huge audience, but one that spans generations. So perhaps the potential for Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson to duel one more time with a nice mix of young guns and veteran sticks joining the fight, a microcosm of this cross-generational meeting of minds will calm some of this desperation to get younger or die.

On that note...

If you need your memory refreshed, here are GolfChannel.com's newsmakers, with of course, that passing of Arnold Palmer in the top spot. We lost many others in '16 as Cliff Schrock notes at GolfDigest.com, but it was Palmer's death that will forever define the year.

Randall Mell steps back from the raw emotion of the initial coverage to consider what Palmer's passing means to the game. Brandel Chamblee also weighed in with this piece.

Jeff Babineau covered many topics in his year-end Golfweek.com thoughts, including Palmer's funeral. And GolfChannel.com's Mercer Baggs left the service feeling upbeat, thanks in part to the eulogy by Sam Saunders.

Doug Ferguson uses up his notes that weren't technically newsworthy, just entertaining. And while this Wayne Gretzky item is the best, the theme here is Palmer and he included this one:

The day after the U.S. Open, Arnold Palmer drove his cart to the back entrance of his office in Latrobe, Pennsylvania.

It had been a rough year. Palmer declined to a do his news conference or a TV interview at Bay Hill, instead taping an interview for the NBC telecast. For the first time, he did not hit a ceremonial tee shot at the start of the Masters the following month.

But he was sharp on this day. Dustin Johnson had won the U.S. Open, but only after playing the final seven holes not knowing if the USGA was going to penalize him one shot for his ball moving on the fifth green.

"What did you think of the Open?" Palmer said.

"Interesting," came the fence-sitting reply.

Palmer grinned and, as always, got straight to the point.

"The USGA really (messed) this one up, didn't they?" he said.

Beth Ann Baldry filed her favorite memories from a year on the road covering amateur and women's golf, with the NCAA's in Eugene still resonating strongly. For Mell, Se Ri Pak's emotional retirement cameo was the memory he won't soon forget.

Off the course, the equipment and business side proved fascinating, with more news soon on the way for 2017. David Dusek at Golfweek.com summed it up this way:

Where would you start in a year that included Jordan Spieth cracking the face of his driver on the eve of the Masters, Adidas announcing that it wants to sell TaylorMade, Adams and Ashworth and the USGA and R&A reporting that they don’t feel driving distance is a problem in professional golf?

Which brings us back to the proverbial question that inspired the start of this website 13 years ago and saw it morph into a blog 11 years ago. Will 2017 be the year anything is done? Probably not. But I'm encouraged enough by too many other big picture trends to never rule out some action. Shoot, we might even see a slow play penalty on the West Coast swing. Strap, it's going to be a wild year ahead.

Until then, Happy New Year,
Geoff

Where DJ Went After The 2015 U.S. Open

That 18th hole three-putt ultimately changed Dustin Johnson's career for the better, leading him to vindication at Oakmont in 2016 and earning him Golf's player of the year and an Alan Shipnuck profile.

There is a lot to take in--if you can pop some dramamine to deal with the jittery webpage--including where Johnson disappeared to instead of attending the trophy ceremony. He had to pack the family car for Gozzer!

That night, the family retreated to a rental home to gather their belongings; they'd be flying to Gozzer for a previously scheduled trip. Johnson insisted on carrying out all of their suitcases and loading them into SUVs. When Wayne expressed concern about Johnson's back, the golfer shot back, "After the way I played today, this is what I deserve."

The next morning, at 7 a.m., Wayne teed off at Gozzer with his cronies, a sprawling group that includes Mike Mattivi, a 16-handicapper who is also a part of the regular games at Sherwood. Johnson said he would join them on the first tee, but no one was surprised when he didn't show. They were in the second fairway when a ball whistled over their heads. "We all knew it was Dustin," Mattivi says. "He comes roaring up and says, "I told y'all to wait for me!" After what he had just been through at Chambers Bay, I was shocked. Most guys would spend a week in bed, hugging their pillow, but this kid loves the game so much he didn't want to miss out on the fun."

The second hole at Gozzer Ranch is a 589-yard par 5; Johnson smashed an 8-iron to four feet for an eagle try. "He's standing there waiting for us to give it to him," Mattivi says. "And one of our buddies goes, "Dustin, that would normally be good, but since you missed one about that length 12 hours ago, you're gonna have to putt it." Dustin laughed so damn hard. He knows we love him no matter how many 4-footers he might miss."

USGA's FAQ Page To The Dustin Johnson Ruling

Many of you have forwarded the form replies you've received to your letters to the USGA following this year's U.S. Open.

Included is this FAQ page from the USGA that I found fascinating in its tone. And revealing.

Why are the Rules of Golf so complicated?

We recognize that due to the fact that golf is played outdoors, on a wide variety of courses, and by players using an assortment of different clubs, the Rules of Golf are naturally complex and can be challenging to apply. We, together with The R&A, have been conducting a fundamental review of the Rules of Golf in an effort to simplify and clarify them. We are well along in that process and intend to consult many within the game before implementing any revisions.

Why does the USGA use video review?

At the U.S. Open and its other televised championships, the USGA actively monitors the broadcast in an effort to respond to viewer inquiries and prevent questions and disputes from arising during the competition and after it closes. While we recognize that there are differing opinions about the use of video, it provides us with another method to help ensure the integrity of the championship and protect its outcome.

How Dustin Johnson Is Using Trackman To Become Better

If you saw Dustin Johnson on Golf Channel warming up for his WGC Bridgestone final round, you know he was hitting balls with a Trackman on Firestone's range tee.

Doug Ferguson explains how the device has helped Johnson break out of an early season slump and improve the biggest (statistic) weakness in his game.

Johnson wanted it only for his wedges.

"All I look at it is carry numbers, just so I have more of a feel when I'm on the course and playing," Johnson said. "I felt like that was one area I needed to improve on. I felt like I was good with it, but I was too streaky. One day I'd be perfect, the next day ... not that I hit them bad, I just didn't hit them good enough."

Now it's perhaps the most underrated part of his game.

Three years ago, Johnson was tied for 113th on the PGA Tour in approach shots from 50 to 125 yards.

Now he is No. 1 on tour.

Regarding DJ's latest win, the SI/golf.com roundtable kicked the WGC Bridgestone around and noted this:

Alan Shipnuck, senior writer, Sports Illustrated (@AlanShipnuck): It’s the grittiness. We’ve all known for a long time DJ had the talent to overwhelm the golf world. Suddenly he is playing with a different hunger, and focus. If he keeps imposing his will like this, look out!

Cameron Morfit, senior writer, GOLF Magazine (@CameronMorfit): I remember once interviewing DJ and he made mention of his long limbs, but not in the context of that being an advantage. He was saying that because of his physique, when things got out of synch, they really got out of synch. Well, now he’s really, really in synch, and to do it on two vastly different tracks, one choked with trees and one with none, is impressive.

Heading to The Open, the Daily Mail's Derek Lawrenson looks at Dustin's "late bloomer" evolution given his age and the way players are evolving at a young age, and reminds us of this:

You have to go all the way back to 1950 and seven Opens at Troon to find the last non-American champion and Johnson will now be favoured by plenty to continue that winning streak.

How has the game’s best athlete gone from something of an underachiever to serial winner at the age of 32?

Flashback: "Can The USGA Survive Walter Driver?"

As the dust finally settles on Oakmont and the 2016 U.S. Open, Dustin Johnson's follow-up win at the WGC Bridgestone helps shift a little more focus on the winner and away from the rules issue that arose.

While golfers still discuss the rule and decision that prompted the officials to intervene, it is important to better understand the culture that led to a moment which, had Johnson lost the U.S. Open over the ball moving on marble-like greens, might have done permanent damage to the reputation of the U.S. Open and golf.

Why did the USGA feel so compelled to intervene in a situation that few outside the rules community saw as requiring definitive action? Especially given that so many golfers recognized the issue was caused by excessive green speed. For those of us who've been frustrated with the use of green speed to offset regulatory malfeasance on the distance issue, the number of golfers making the connection between the issues is heartening.

Still, we would like to better understand the culture that focuses so much effort on the high-risk business of running up Stimpmeter speeds or adding tees to U.S. Open courses or policing innocent pro golfers, better known as: ABTB (Anything But The Ball).

So I was advised to go back and read Chris Millard's 2007 Golf World cover story on USGA President Walter Driver,. Ironically, the story preceded the U.S. Open at Oakmont. The story resonates on many levels, from understanding the USGA's focus to how much behind the scenes debate occurs.

Sadly, we know Driver has continued to influence the organization via the nominating committee, with his crowning achievement the naming of pal Diana Murphy as president to continue the corporate prioritization of the USGA's approach.

It's well worth a re-read, but this was one of the more enlightening moments:


Proponents of Driver say he has single-handedly shaken the USGA out of a slumber induced by the influx of cash the USGA fell into when it reconfigured its television rights contracts in 1994. They say he has tried to inject into a bloated USGA some badly needed business principles (the title of Driver's speech at the USGA's annual meeting in San Francisco last February was "The USGA As An Organization And A Business"). Detractors, many of whom see the USGA as a charitable organization first, say Driver has imposed his will on its culture and that his administration has disenfranchised everyone from Golf House staffers (those who work at USGA headquarters in Far Hills, N.J.) to equipment manufacturers to the organization's once-revered past presidents.

"I would say his effort to instill a new level of business-like procedure at the USGA has been important," says Reg Murphy, USGA president in 1994-95 and the man who authored the association's lucrative TV move from long-time partner ABC to NBC in 1994. "He's tried to create a more business-like organization. There are people who resist that idea, by the way, that the USGA ought to operate like a business."


And nine years later, that business is operating in a way that has MILLIONS of golfers wondering what on earth it is up to.

Diaz: What Really Happened At Oakmont

Now that Dustin Johnson has spoken and has not had his mind changed a bit about his actions at Oakmont (Will Gray reports), Jaime Diaz has filed an in-depth, definitive account for the September Golf Digest of the 2016 U.S. Open's Dustin Johnson penalty. While most of the facts will still be very familiar, Diaz brings in views of some notable rules figures and tries to figure out the options for changing the rule.

This from two noted USGA veterans stood out, starting with comments from David Eger:


Eger believes the right call was made based on the rule as written, but admits his experience writing, interpreting and administering the rules gives him an uncommon perspective. “All the rules officials I know think Dustin broke the rule, but none of my friends who I play golf with think he did. None of my friends have all the information. They use the wrong criteria to judge. But the rules are so fastidious, precise and often complicated.”

But David Fay, the USGA’s executive director for two decades, who served as the Fox telecast’s rules expert, contends the Johnson ruling was a close one even for officials. “You could get 10 rules experts and show them video evidence of Wattel and Johnson’s actions around the ball. I guarantee some would say Wattel deserved a penalty and Johnson didn’t, or that neither deserved a penalty, or that both did.”


Wonderful!

There was also this from Diaz:


In retrospect, executive director Mike Davis, didn’t take charge at a time when an accountable leader was desperately needed to speak for the organization. Hall and Pagel were too careful and scripted in their interviews on Fox and Golf Channel, clearly looking over their shoulder. At Oakmont, the buck had no place to stop.

I think this next part is where the average golfer differs from the rules expert, but nearly two weeks later I'm still not entirely sure why the experts are so sure of their stance.

But in trying to solve a problem, the new rule created new ones that are arguably worse. The main one? When it comes to determining what made a ball move short of the club hitting the ball, there is almost never anything close to “proof” that a player’s actions were the cause. “More likely than not” or “51 percent of the evidence” is a recipe for too many close calls that will leave a feeling of player victimization, especially if and when it costs someone a championship.

U.S. Open: "It was clearly an institutional breakdown in communication and procedures."

Watching how replay has been used in other sports (particularly baseball, football, tennis), most sports fans have accepted the use of technology to get calls right. We've seen so many calls either confirmed or overturned for the betterment of the competition we are watching, and, let's face it, in a way that has made the sports more entertaining. Yet the USGA ruling at Oakmont stands as the most confusing, unnecessary and frighteningly dangerous use of video replay most sports fans have seen, even if it was an accurate interpretation of the Rules of Golf "Decisions".

So no matter how great a story Billy Hurley is, or what a magnificent weekend golf enjoyed with a combination of old (Ernie, Vijay, Henrik) and young names (Rahm, Lydia, Ollie) playing so well, the U.S. Open continues to be the 19th Hole subject of discussion.

And I'm still waiting to hear how it gets better for the USGA.

The SI/golf.com roundtable is not the place for the folks in Far Hills to look.

Alan Shipnuck, senior writer, Sports Illustrated (@AlanShipnuck): It was a brutal public relations hit for the USGA, and Davis’s quasi-apology didn’t really help. I got the first interview with him at Oakmont. Davis was upstairs in the locker room changing into his tie for the trophy presentation and I pounced on him. At that point DJ was on the 16th hole and Davis still hadn’t seen video of the incident! He was just going by reports from other staffers. It was clearly an institutional breakdown in communication and procedures. This will all lead to some soul-searching and clearly the USGA needs to overhaul how it handles things on the ground at big tournaments. 

That's just bizarre.

Bamberger tries to see nuance and both sides and comes closest to defending the decision, even though he's no in agreement:

In my opinion, the videotape was completely inconclusive and I would have not accessed Johnson the shot, but to reach another conclusion is entirely reasonable. Now if you want to say there should be a new rule by which these minute movements shouldn’t matter, go ahead and try to draft such a rule. But right now, the rule is that any movement must be accounted for and the USGA was trying to do right by Johnson and the rest of the field. That is its obligation. The rest -- including Tiger and Jordan and Big Jack himself -- is noise. The USGA is not in the public-relations business. Its purpose is to stage a championship and assure that the rules, which it tries constantly to improve, are applied fairly to all. 

And the last word from Gary Van Sickle speaks to what I sense many golfers feel:

Nice of Davis to apologize for delay in penalty assessment, a terrible mistake. But by Monday, he had plenty of time to recognize that Hall and Pagel had wrongly assessed a penalty and ignored USGA’s own definition that “unless the facts show that a player caused the ball to move,” there is no penalty. I lost a lot of respect for the USGA on this one. This can’t happen again.

The Church Pew Bottle Opener Lives On!

By popular demand, Seamus Golf's Church Pew bottle opener, made in a numbered edition of 145 and sold out early in U.S. Open week, is coming back for more!

Akbar Christi sent out a note to his Seamus golf mailing list today.

You can order here and also see the opener being made here.

We featured the opener last week at GolfDigest.com and on Golf Channel.