ERIN, Wis. – The best thing that happened to golf in 2016 may have been the Dustin Johnson controversy at Oakmont.
It’s almost amazing that it never occurred sooner, that a leader of a major championship committed an infraction – or did he? – and the tournament continued for six more holes before a rules committee made a decision. We watched the U.S. Open for more than an hour and, yes, we didn’t know the leader’s actual score. Picture a baseball game going on when one team trails for three innings by a 4-2 score, or maybe it’s 4-3; nobody knows for sure.
In the age of TV replay, high-powered zoom lenses and viewer call-ins, this whacked scenario was bound to happen. Luckily, this embarrassing incident didn’t change the Open’s outcome. Johnson still won. Just imagine the fallout if it had cost him the championship, however.
The USGA czars promise it’ll never happen again. The USGA has changed its procedures and is ready to react much quicker to a similar situation this time around. You learn by fire, I guess, and you don’t worry about a dam until it springs a leak.
Johnson’s episode led to a crucial local-rules change: if a player’s ball moves by itself or the player moves it accidentally, he replaces it without penalty. Last year, that oh-so-obvious proviso would have prevented the entire D.J. fiasco.
“There were two things we fell short on last year,” said John Bodenhamer, the USGA’s championships director. “It took too long to make the ruling, and it left uncertainty with the competition.”
So, there have been changes. What’s different this year? The USGA has a five-person rules committee in charge of the competition, and they will be in close communications at all times, which was not the case last year, in part because of Oakmont’s layout – being divided by the Pennsylvania Turnpike.
Thomas Pagel, the senior director or rules and amateur status, is the USGA’s new “white-hat referee,” as Bodenhamer calls him. Pagel is empowered to make an instantaneous – and totally, completely, absolutely final – decision, if necessary.
There will be four on-course video-review locations to help speed things up. Last year, officials had to traverse a crowded course back to the Oakmont clubhouse to see what was up. One official was asked why the rules officials didn’t use tablets to view the Johnson replay and he answered, “We don’t have tablets.”
Now they’ve got tablets, so they’re armed and ready.
One more change, and one I think is a good one, is that the USGA is getting rid of its walking rules officials – that is, a rules person walks along with one group for all 18 holes – for the first time since 1991. Instead, that rules official will be stationed in one spot and be responsible for keeping watch over one or two holes. That official will be able to spot a potential trouble spot – such as the cruelly slanted ninth green this year, for example – and be even handier if needed.
Pagel will not be roaming the grounds. He’ll remain in one spot, the better to be reachable at all times, and additional staff members will be assigned to watch the telecast and keep an eye out for potential violations.
You may recall Pagel as the unfortunate fellow who was on TV trying to explain last year’s decision when Johnson was penalized for his ball moving on one green, even though he never touched the ball or grounded his club behind it. Pagel’s reasoning was that it was “more likely than not” that Johnson caused the movement.
Personally, I never bought that reasoning, and neither did a lot of others, hence the controversy. Now, the USGA seems better-poised to pounce on a problem. If we don’t hear Pagel’s name all week, it’ll mean the new changes worked to perfection. We’ll be happy, and so will Mr. Pagel.