What was astonishing about Dustin Johnson’s US Open victory on Sunday wasn’t that he actually got his hands on a major at last, nor that yet again he was involved in a controversial incident that saw him docked a stroke, nor even that the USGA were utterly incompetent in their administration of the rules; but that nobody – players, pundits, officials and golfing journos – was aware that the golfing rules on moving balls had changed earlier in the year. Everyone kept blathering on about how Dustin hadn’t ‘addressed the ball’ on the 5th green when his ball started to move, but the new rules state that if the weight of evidence indicates that a player may have caused the ball to move, even if there is an element of doubt, the player will incur a 1 stoke penalty (Rule 18-2).
So the USGA were right in principle to penalise Johnson. Obviously where they went wrong was to delay doling out the penalty until the end, which inevitably ruined the climax of the event as no one knew what the correct score was. It soured the atmosphere and clearly affected the players. Johnson was informed of the possible penalty on the 12th hole, and subsequently seemed to lose his edge for the next few holes, while his rivals went into free fall. It was very, very fortunate for the USGA that, in the end, Johnson was able to regain his composure and win by a margin of more than 2 shots.
If Shane Lowry needs any consolation for blowing a 4 shot lead and collapsing at the death, he can give himself a generous pat on the back for playing his part in creating an unequivocal margin of victory for Dustin Johnson. Imagine the pandemonium if Dustin had won by just one shot and then been told in the clubhouse that erm, sorry mate, we have decided to give you a one shot penalty, so erm, you haven’t actually won. Johnson’s 4 stroke (amended to 3 stroke) win didn’t just let the USGA off the hook; it saved golf’s credibility.
The moral of the story? Firstly, if you are going to make a decision, be decisive and make it. If you need to stop play to do so, do it. Don’t dither. Secondly, if you are going to change your rules, try to make them less subjective, not more. Oh, and when you have done so, do try to tell everyone about it.