To seasoned golf fans, non-golfers, and even those familiar with the intricasies of the rules of golf, the situation in which Dustin Johnson found himself en-route to his first major victory in this year’s US Open, would have been puzzling, confusing and may have even seemed downright ridiculous.
Johnson incurred a one shot penalty for his ball moving backwards as he prepared to tidy up for par from around three feet on the par four 5th hole during his final round. Rules officials deemed that the two practise strokes he made before moving his club behind the ball, had caused the ball to move. To anyone watching who has played the game of golf, or for that matter, anyone with the most basic understanding of the laws of physics, would surely have concluded that there was no possibility that the big hitting American’s actions could have caused the ball to move.
The ball’s movement was backwards from the hole, in exactly the same direction as Johnson’s putter, and occured as he went to place the putter behind the ball. The fact that the putter was still above the ground, though, indicates that Johnson’s actions could not have caused the ball to move as he had not applied any pressure to the ground behind the ball. If it were his practise strokes that caused the rotation of the ball, then the ball would surely have moved in the direction of Johnson, rather than away from the hole.
Even worse was the fact that the ruling officials didn’t make a call on the ruling immediately. Instead, they waited until the 12th hole to advise Johnson that they were looking at the incident and would make a decision on whether to slap him with a penalty after reviewing all of the footage at their disposal. To Johnson’s credit, the incident and the fact that he was facing the possibility of losing yet another major championship because of a rule violation, was taken in his typically laid back stride. Aside from one shot which could be attributed to his mind becoming distracted because of the incident, he played the remainder of his final round like a man on a mission with huge, accurate drives, precision iron play and the touch of a surgeon when he was on or around the putting surface. All parts of his game finally came together when he so wanted it to, and he took out his National Championship.
At face value, the game of golf should be simple enough. Hit a ball until it goes in the hole and try to take the fewest swipes possible. There shouldn’t be too many difficulties along the way…
There is a certain honour amongst golfers. It is one of, if not the only sport in the world where competitors call penalties on themselves for indiscretions, even if their playing partners haven’t seen the incident. And while this is commendable and should be encouraged, every now and then we have an incident, such as the one Dustin Johnson was involved in, where the game of golf can seem over governed and stuffy - the type of game that the elite would play because only they could make up so many unnecessary rules and regulations.
With the number of people taking up golf in the decline, the sport needs an image facelift. Over the last 20 years, players like Tiger Woods and Rickie Fowler have helped to remove some of the ‘Old Man’s Game’ stigma often associated with golf in the past, but for people, and in particular young people who may want to take up the game, we cannot have incidents on one of the game’s biggest stages throwing the integrity of the game into question. Golf needs to continue to revamp its image and move forward with exciting new formats and competitions that will capture the imagination of those who may be contemplating swinging a club for the first time.
The R&A and USGA need to look at removing unnecessary rules that slow down or frustrate players. Or for that matter, make viewing the game on television less enjoyable. The playing field still needs to be level and fair, but there is a lot that could be done to make the game and some of its laws more understandable and straight forward. This could avoid the necessity of controversial rulings like the one we saw at Oakmont, which could have potentially have overshadowed one of the finest final rounds of golf played in the history of US Open’s on one of the world’s toughest layouts in recent memory.
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