By Mark Lamport-Stokes
OAKMONT, Pennsylvania (Reuters) – Sunday’s farcical finish at the U.S. Open, where the victory margin for champion Dustin Johnson was uncertain until a review by rules officials, left tournament organizers in the crosshairs of condemnation.
Whether or not the United States Golf Association (USGA) made the right call in docking Johnson a stroke after his ball moved fractionally on the fifth green, the governing body has been widely slammed for not taking action as soon as possible.
Johnson was initially absolved of any wrongdoing by an official walking with the American’s pairing in the final round but, when he arrived at the 12th tee, he was told by another official that he might be penalized after the round.
The USGA’s decision to put Johnson under notice while informing every other player about his possible one-stroke penalty, led to a chaotic conclusion at Oakmont Country Club with no initial clarity about the champion’s final score.
The long-hitting American did, however, save the USGA from the embarrassment of having an even more confusing finish, simply because of his clear-cut margin when he sank a five-foot birdie putt at the last.
At that point, Johnson had a four-shot lead which was eventually trimmed to three when he was given the one-stroke penalty, the USGA deeming him responsible for making his ball move on the fifth green.
Golfing great Jack Nicklaus, an 18-time major winner, was asked during FOX TV coverage of the final round if he had ever been told by a rules official during a tournament that he might have incurred a penalty.
“Not yet,” Nicklaus replied with a laugh before criticizing the USGA for its delay in taking a decision. “I think it’s very unusual. You either have (a penalty) or you don’t have one, that’s my feeling.
“I think it’s very unfair to the player. … they could possibly penalize him, but if you’re gonna do that, then they should have penalized him, and let him get on with the job.”
Johnson’s caddie, his brother Austin, did his best to ensure that the tournament leader did get on with his job after the two had discussed the situation on the 12th tee.
“I tried telling him not to think about it, but the whole time I’m sitting there thinking about it,” Austin Johnson told reporters after the round. “I don’t know how he did it (dealt with the pressure).
“We gotta play the last seven holes with the lead in a major championship thinking that we gotta win by two, basically, or we may have to win by two, not even knowing we have to win by two.”
Former United States Ryder Cup player Brad Faxon, an eight-times winner on the PGA Tour, slammed the USGA on Fox Sports, saying: “What other sport would wait until the end of the game to make a ruling? This is ridiculous.”
The USGA’s handling of the situation drew outraged responses from several high-profile players via Twitter, including former world number ones Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth.
Asked why Johnson’s penalty stroke had not been assessed sooner, USGA managing director of rules and competition Jeff Hall said: “There was a further conversation to have.
“We asked him a question, ‘Was there something else that could have caused the ball to move?’ It was clear we needed a further conversation, and the 12th tee did not seem to be the right place for that.
“We just wanted him to realize that we were concerned, and we wanted to make him aware of that so that he could strategically make decisions that he needed to make for the balance of the round.”
(Editing by Frank Pingue)