The United States Golf Association published an e-address specifically asking for comment on its odd decision to assess a one-stroke penalty on eventual winner Dustin Johnson when his ball moved while his putter head was near the ball on the 5th green. (If you want to see other descriptions of the incident, or video of it, please Google it.) I accepted the USGA’s offer. Here’s what I wrote:

To the USGA,

As an avid golfer for more than 41 years, I was appalled by your penalty against Dustin Johnson. And I say this as somebody who grew up revering Ben Crenshaw for calling a penalty on himself at the New Orleans Open in the late 1970s when I, as a 13 year-old, was right there, early in the morning, watching him set up, and didn’t even see the ball move, much less him cause it. I care deeply about the integrity of the game, and consider myself a stickler for the rules.

But in the case of the US Open, your own people obviously, clearly, unambiguously misinterpreted your own rules.

Even with the rules change that you cite, the obvious interpretation, based on the rule and on the history of the game, requires a three-part analysis.

1) Is there visual evidence clearly indicating that the player moved the ball?

Answer: No. The ball did not move while the putter was grounded beside it. The ball did not move until a couple of seconds later, as the putter hovered behind it, but clearly and obviously not touching it as it hovered.

2) Did Johnson “address” the ball? Answer: No. Of course, if he had addressed the ball and then the ball moved, even if he didn’t touch the ball itself, that would count as a stroke. But he did not address it.

3) If none of the other two criteria applied, then the default option is the integrity of the player. If the players insists that he did not cause the ball to move, and if there is any other reasonable explanation (i.e. greens reading 14 or 15 on the Stimpmeter), then the benefit of the doubt goes to the player, because the rules ASSUME that the player is honest.

This, by the way, is the point Jack Nicklaus was making after the round when he criticized the ruling.

I have stood over a putt numerous times, on greens slower than Oakmont’s, and watched my ball wobble and even move a dimple or two based on the wind, or vibrations from a cart going by, or a blade of grass somehow shifting.

It can happen, and does happen all the time.

Meanwhile, if your own official told Johnson on the spot that there would be no penalty, and if playing competitor Lee Westwood agree there should be no penalty, then the only, only, only way that ruling should be overturned is if the video evidence otherwise turns out to be indisputable. Not “ever-so-slightly more likely than not,” but indisputable.

The video evidence not only was not indisputable, but to most observers — myself, Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth, Ricky Fowler, and so many others — that evidence was MORE on Johnson‘s side than not.

DJ

Golf is primarily a self-policed game. Absent incontrovertible evidence otherwise, the self-policing of Dustin Johnson should not be overruled.

The USGA has not just egg on its face, but an entire convention full of omelettes. It beclowned itself with its decision, and with the way it handled it. You should be embarrassed. And you should apologize to Dustin Johnson.

Sincerely,

Quin Hillyer

 

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