Thanks, USGA, for turning The Open into ‘Amateur Hour’

Mark Roberson

Golf is among the most difficult of all sports.  The ability to maneuver a golf ball and consistently score below par is essential, as is the mental-toughness a golfer must have to win tournaments, let alone major championships.  The U.S. Open is – and should be — golf’s most rigorous major.  A long, narrow, grueling course always gets tricked-up with impossible pin placements on oil-slick greens.

The 116th U.S. Open at Oakmont, Pa., was as fine and debilitating as anyone could have wished.  Out of the 156 participants, only four scored under par.  The cut-line was a tough +7.  Among those making it only halfway were some of the game’s household names: McIlroy, Rose, Fowler.  Even Phil Mickelson was left out of the fray, missing just his third cut in more than 20 U.S. Open appearances.

In contrast to the Masters and the PGA Championship, the other two American majors which are both run by the PGA, the U.S. Open is operated by the United States Golf Association, the organization responsible for producing and interpreting the rules of the sport as played in this country.  The organization hosts 13 national championships yearly, most of them amateur championships.

So golf fans were left muttering through most of Sunday’s final round:  How could these rules experts make a travesty of the rules of golf?  How could they dismantle a classic finish to the national championship they created?

The final round was already stocked with appealing storylines: portly Shane Lowry begins it leading by 4 as he tries to be the first Irishman to win a major; the once promiseful and still-only-36 Sergio Garcia trying to be the first Sergio Garcia to win a major.  He’s had 10 top-5 finishes.

And now, at hole No. 5, Dustin Johnson, tall, talented, yet strangely fragile, fraught with demons.

Recall that Johnson, who took most of 2014 off from the professional tour for undisclosed “personal challenges,” fell apart on the final hole of last year’s U.S. Open at Chamber’s Bay, Washington.  He held a one-shot lead over Jordan Spieth as he blasted his final tee-shot, but he gave away the championship by three-putting from 12 feet on the 18th hole.

Oakmont would turn out much better.  Johnson’s long-driving, his iron accuracy and an unusually steady putting stroke combined to produce his first major championship as he’s about to turn 32.

But the USGA made it so much more difficult than it should have been – even by Open standards.

With the crowd behind him and all the momentum in the world, this was shaping up as by far my favorite U.S. Open in years … until his ball moved ever so slightly on the number five green.

This is where you hoped the professional side of the USGA would predominate over the amateur side.

An amateur is by definition a nonprofessional.  Taking that definition a step further, an amateur is a person who is inept or unskillful.

Once Johnson’s ball wavered just before he struck it.  Once he sank the 6-foot putt, the USGA became an organization of true amateurs, in every sense of the word.

After discussion with a rules official, it was determined that Johnson had not caused the ball to move, and he was told to resume play.  This decision was then reviewed and discussed by the USGA staff who second-guessed the field umpires.  Johnson was notified prior to his shot from the 12th tee box that the situation was “still under review.”

What’s that?  Still under review?

What’s to review?

Is the video going to change between now and the end of the round?  Are they going to interrogate some fans who were standing near the spot of the dubious foul?  Are we waiting for the National Weather Service to provide data on wind speed and direction and barometric pressure at green No. 5?

Is there really time to plead the fifth?  Isn’t it time to move on?

Needless to say, the last thing a golfer wants to hear during his pursuit of a major championship is that he may or may not have made an error, that he may – or may not – have the lead.   Does he reach for a bunker-risky driver or does he lay up?  How does he calculate the stupidity of officials?

With the possibility of a one-stroke penalty hanging over his head, Johnson proceeded to land his next few tee-shots into the rough and sand, missing several fairways during his back-nine stretch.

The news had clearly affected him.  Here are some of his fellow PGA competitors voicing their opinions on the matter.

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Read more here.

Earlier in the week, long-time tour professional Charley Hoffman took to Instagram to express his outrage at the USGA and their handling of the tournament this year.

“Just venting a bit. Can’t play a professional event run by amateurs. The PGA Tour staff is amazing week in and out. Hopefully one day we will separate ourselves.”

Read more here.

It is, of course, the responsibility of the tournament officials to get the call right.  But that is not what was so important on Sunday to so many golfers.  It was the way the situation was handled.  A decision should have been made on-the-spot.  No waiting around and no pending inquiry should have been needed.  There was never any evidence that Johnson had anything to do with the ball moving before he addressed it.

Johnson did his best to make the ruling irrelevant by birdieing 18, one of the most daunting holes of the tournament, with a spectacular approach shot.

The penalty was assessed after Johnson finished, but by then it did not matter.  He was four strokes ahead of the nearest competitor prior to a penalty that was called three hours after the alleged infraction.

The USGA got lucky here.  Had the finish been closer and Johnson lost, most would be talking about the USGA’s amateurism instead of Johnson’s tenacious and dominating professionalism.

I would NOT have been inclined to let the USGA off the hook.  This is the organization that is tasked with protecting the sanctity of golf itself.  It failed on Sunday.  If the USGA plans to host the U.S. Open far into the future, it needs to realize how close it was to ruining a major championship, and never repeat this egregious mistake again.


Mark Roberson, graduate of the University of Texas-Austin journalism school, is a 9-handicap golfer.

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