I’m just going to assume that you’ve read Bamberger and Diaz by now and get right to the point, because if I wait any longer London might go and tell, I don’t know, Canada to find its own Head of State already, sending the Internet into yet another tizzy and pushing an arcane rules debate in a little played or watched sport further into oblivion.
Now as good as these journalists are — and they’re certainly the only two left wasting their talents on this golf thing that understand nuance — they both leave out a critical point regarding the latest US Open at the once venerable, but now diminished, Oakmont Country Club. Or, are at least unable to come out and say what they want to directly, perhaps because of the personal and professional obligations that go along with working for esteemed, but similarly decimated, media conglomerates.
Before we get to that, let’s just accept that there’s really only one controversy here, and that’s over the timing of the penalty. Even the millennial crowd, which proved constitutionally unable to resist the urge to wail loudly and publicly about the injustice of it all, were more taken aback by the uncertainty of the matter than the possibility of Dustin Johnson losing a stroke. Actually, that sentence is a bit unfair to the hipster set, because the lauded (for not being Greg Norman) 50-somethings fronting Fox’s telecast too became increasingly cranky over the lingering indecision. For that matter, even Big Jack zeroed in on this point.
And at first blush, this reaction seems reasonable. This was no Kent Island Invitational; they were contesting the US freaking Open here. A tournament that has antagonized the greatest of players, regardless of their records. Ben (how did I not win more?) Arnold (how did I only win one??) and Sam (how did I not win any???) all brooded on the event to the end. In what other sport are referees, or their equivalents, paralyzed? Make a call. Penalize the leader for the ball’s rotation and move on. A stupid rule, perhaps, but no worse than a dozen others in the book. What’s all this nonsense about waiting to look at the video at the end of the round?
Well, there was a time when honor meant more than score.
Players have been ostracized, for life, for questionable rules incidents. Gary Player has won 9 majors (he’d be the first to tell you) but, among those in the know, he’s remembered more as a guy you had to watch like hawk lest he fluff up a ball in the rough. Vijay Singh is a legitimate Hall of Famer but will never shake the fact that he once put a 3 instead of a 4 (or whatever it was) on his card at an obscure Asian Tour event in the 1980s. Bob Toski is bitter to this day because of accusations that he better positioned his ball while re-marking it on the green. To some, Ernie Els’s first US Open will always have an asterisk. And Tiger lost the game’s elite not over infidelity but after he big-shotted his way to an entitled drop en route to his second Players Championship.
Now, as Bamberger says more directly than Diaz, the USGA, by issuing the penalty, would have been calling Johnson out. Golf is a game of honor, yes, but we don’t trust yours. You moved the ball. Or most likely did. We can’t let you get away with it. And, frankly, it’s disconcerting that you’re not coming to this conclusion on your own.
At the same time, the USGA knew very well the implications of overruling DJ and calling the penalty. It would have meant adding him to the list above. It would have meant writing the second line of his obituary. You scoff? It doesn’t take much to sully a guy’s honor in the absurd world of professional golf. God only knows whether Toski moved his ball forward or if Gary Player improved his lie a few times over the course of 10,000 rounds. It doesn’t matter. In golf, the accusation itself is the scarlet letter. You don’t overcome it. Guilt is secondary. Actually, it’s irrelevant.
Perhaps alone in knowing the gravity of the situation—DJ and the whingers fleeing western Pennsylvania in their private jets with their iPhones at the ready, certainly didn’t—the USGA was not going to contradict the dullard’s explanation and impose the penalty on the spot. No, they were going to give the honorable Mr. Johnson every opportunity to make the right call on his own. After the round, away from the heat of the moment. Ironically, the USGA was trying to protect him. How quaint of the blue coats to judge a competitor’s reputation to be more important, say, than playing a few holes of one round not knowing if you’re leading by two strokes or one.
In effect the USGA, by delaying the penalty, decided to put Johnson’s integrity over the integrity of the championship.
Well, that is, if you’re in the camp that finds it inconceivable to even consider playing a round of golf not knowing the exact score of the other 144 guys in the field at every moment. In fact, I think such a stipulation might be in the rules. Or at least the Hadith. Thou shalt knoweth the leader’s position in relation to par at ALL TIMES (emphasis added by Sam Snead.)