Back before Arnold Palmer was Arnold Palmer, he found himself involved in a rules tiff on the final day of a major championship.
Leading the Masters by one, Palmer watched his tee shot at Augusta National’s 12th hole plug in muddy soil behind the green. Palmer believed he was entitled to relief under a local rule. So did playing partner Ken Venturi. Rules official Arthur Lacey disagreed.
Palmer, miffed, played the embedded ball for a double bogey — then announced he would play a second ball from relief and appeal to the rules committee. He chipped that one near the hole for par and waited to learn what to write in.
Three holes later, the ruling came back — Palmer would be credited with par. It proved valuable in a one-stroke victory that notched his first major title.
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That was 1958. Nearly 60 years and an electronic revolution later, we’re left to wonder after Sunday’s rules fiasco at Oakmont whether the process has evolved. Heck, it may have regressed.
Dustin Johnson — and by extension, everyone else within striking distance of the U.S. Open crown — was left twisting for seven holes by U.S. Golf Association officials as to exactly where they stood on the leaderboard.
Seven holes. About two hours in real time.
Was Johnson leading by two? By one? The confusion even took the air out of the Fox broadcast for about two holes. Who broadcasts an event where you don’t know the actual score?
Give Johnson credit. He managed to render that niggling question moot by playing those final seven holes in even par while others buckled. A closing birdie at No. 18, courtesy of a splendid approach that stopped 5 feet from the flagstick, provided the perfect exclamation point.
Take that, USGA. Add the penalty if you must.
“I still don’t think I caused the ball to move,” Johnson said after his four-shot margin of victory was downgraded to three. “I don’t even understand the rule, but I got a penalty. It didn’t matter at the end of the day. That’s it.”
The issue here isn’t whether Johnson somehow caused his ball to move while addressing a putt on Oakmont’s fifth green. It’s the Keystone Kops way in which the USGA administered the ruling.
When the ball moved, Johnson immediately called over the rules official walking with his group — who happened to be the chairman of the USGA rules committee. Johnson said he didn’t cause the ball to move. Playing partner Lee Westwood agreed. No penalty was administered, play on.
But a USGA official monitoring the TV broadcast had questions. OK, fine. This is the age of video review. Someone rings the striped shirts on the field (or court or ice), let’s look at this again. Inbounds or out of bounds? Two-pointer or three?
And that’s where the USGA went off the rails.
“It was clear we needed additional conversation,” said Jeff Hall, the USGA’s chief of rules and competition. “He didn’t have the benefit of looking at the video.”
In the other sports, though, a review is made on the spot, a ruling made and case closed. It may be controversial, but it’s over.
Consider Game 7 of the NBA Finals. Say one of Steph Curry’s long-range jumpers is close to the 3-point line. Now imagine a referee running in to say we’re not sure if his foot was on the line — we’ll check after the final buzzer.
With the proceeds from a couple of those high-end hospitality badges they sell, the USGA could buy a few iPads, download the video and run Hall out to the 12th tee for a short conversation with Johnson and Westwood.
Make a ruling on the spot. Inform competitors and fans. Be done with it.
Instead, the USGA threw its own showcase event into uproar.
“This is ridiculous,” Rory McIlroy tweeted long after he’d left Oakmont. “Let the guy play without this crap in his head. Amateur hour from the @USGA.”
Added Jordan Spieth: “Let me get this straight. DJ doesn’t address it. It’s ruled that he didn’t cause it to move. Now you tell him he may have? Now? This is a joke?”
It was. Unfortunately, it’s the game’s governing body that created the chaos. Imagine if Johnson hadn’t played so brilliantly down the stretch and we wound up with a Monday playoff.
Johnson saved the USGA from itself Sunday. Now it’s up to the organization to properly embrace video review with a long-term fix. Put in procedures that make video review immediate, even if it’s on the course.
For the Good of the Game, don’t let this happen again.