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Opinion Sally Jenkins: Sloppy USGA shouldn't escape the mess it created

Sally Jenkins: Sloppy USGA shouldn’t escape the mess it created

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OAKMONT, Pa. – For a while, Dustin Johnson’s fate in the U.S. Open appeared to rest in the hands of those USGA officials with three names and a numeral, the crested blazer types who order up another “martooni” in the grillroom. You could just imagine the conversation when C. Stillborn Drunklord IV and the rest of the rules committee decided to “review” less than a fraction of a millimeter of ball movement, and gave Johnson a potentially life-altering, soul-stomping penalty for it.

“Doonie, better hold off on that martooni. We have to look at the videotape to see if Dustin Johnson violated rule 1-2B4HQ subsection 13ADFQZ, when he used the old flat-stick at the fifth hole.”

“All right, Budge. I’ll just have a spritzer.”

It was the record for unfair, and also for silly. The flutter of an eyelash caused less disturbance than Johnson’s ball registered on that fifth green at Oakmont Country Club. Yet the USGA’s pompous amateurs with their cocktail shakers and prep school nicknames turned it into a nuclear incident, a toxic spill that could’ve, let’s be honest, damaged Johnson’s career not to mention his psyche for the duration. Suggestion: In the future, U.S. Open rulings should be in the hands of a sober-minded professional.

The USGA took seven holes of harrumphing and pipe-tamping to even inform Johnson that he had, in their view, potentially committed an offense so grave it was worth a one-stroke penalty. He was on the 12th tee when he finally learned of it. But first, you see, a four-man committee would have to meet, and “review.” Which meant that Johnson had to play the remaining crucial holes not knowing what his score really was.

What were they waiting for? Presumably they had to have lunch first, and then discuss subsection I-VI-5-ABZ-25911934, governing whether a committee member may step out of the room to order another veal chop. There also may have been some informal discussion as to whether anyone serves a true Madeira anymore.

Obviously, the unfairness of the situation didn’t penetrate their fog of self-importance.

We can all agree that a rule is a rule. We can also agree that golf’s honor code is an ancient glory that should be protected and preserved. But surely we can also share outrage, expressed by every major professional golfer with a Twitter account, at the USGA’s blundering mismanagement of the rulebook. It was a far worse offense than any a player might have committed.

If a rule is a rule, then the USGA was obliged to accept the ruling of the official who was with Johnson at the par-4 fifth that there was no penalty. The much more likely explanation for ball movement was a slick-shaved green and gravity. And if an honor code means anything, then the USGA was obliged to accept Johnson’s word that he did nothing to cause it. When they didn’t, they called him a liar. They also disrupted the tournament for every single player in the field. Was it coincidence that after the USGA’s blustering interjection, Johnson’s main pursuers, Shane Lowry and Sergio Garcia, began to come apart?

Johnson had every right to come apart too. Here was a player with a chamber of horrors in his head from past painful losses in major championships, including a rules controversy when he unwittingly grounded his club in a bunker to cost himself a place in a playoff at the 2010 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits. Ten times he had finished in the top 10 of majors without winning, including his traumatic three-putt on the 18th hole in the 2015 U.S. Open at Chambers Bay, when he needed just one putt to win or two to tie.

All of those incidents worked on him. “For sure,” he said later. Now here was another blow, another reason to feel ill-starred.

“Just one more thing to add to the list right?” he said

Life is not fair. Life was particularly unfair for a couple of hours to Johnson. But there was one public service that came from it: Johnson gave a clinic to every whining kid in America who thinks he got a bad break or a bad bounce or a lousy call. Here’s how you handle that: You deliver the most concentrated performance of your life. You play right straight through all the unfairness and stupidity, so well that the incompetents can’t touch you.

“Just told myself we’ll worry about it when I get done,” he said later.

Johnson zeroed in. He made one slow, easy swing at a time, with no past or future.

“Let’s just focus on this shot and go from there,” he recounted later. “That’s what I did, all the way to the house.”

He didn’t worry about any other player. He didn’t stew over the illogical reasoning of the USGA. He didn’t agonize about majors lost.

“I just kept telling myself, ‘It’s just me and the golf course; I’m just playing the golf course today,'” he said

He didn’t even look at the leader board. Think about that for a moment. Johnson played the last half-dozen holes aware that the USGA could strip him of the trophy if the tournament came down to a tie or one-stroke. What if he played too aggressively; tried to make up that stroke with a big swing and took a double bogey? Yet he was never tempted to, remaining so mentally disciplined that he didn’t even know what the scoreboard said.

“Honestly I knew I was in a good position from the way the crowd was,” he said. “But I tried my best not to look at the leader board because no matter where I stood, I was just playing the golf course.”

Even at the 18th green, after he hit in close for a final birdie, he had to ask his caddie Austin Johnson (who also happens to be Dustin’s brother): “Where do I stand?”

Johnson’s performance was far better than the USGA deserved. He rescued the integrity of the event, and completely redefined himself as a formidable new major champion – one whom even the tough-minded Jack Nicklaus, this year’s honorary chairman of the Open, complimented. Nicklaus grabbed Johnson’s hand to congratulate him as he walked off the 18th green, and leaned in close to say a few words. Later, he told ESPN what they were: “What you did with all that crap they threw at you was pretty good,” he said.

Johnson’s performance shouldn’t overshadow the disgraceful performance of the USGA. It’s not good enough that he managed to transcend their nonsense. The USGA now faces a reckoning with players who will demand changes.

“DJ took the high road,” Jordan Spieth tweeted. “This ordeal cannot be overlooked because of a multiple-shot victory.”

The USGA’s fair application of an over-inflated rulebook depends entirely on whether they’re lucky enough to have some sensible member on the rules committee. The rulebook should be reduced, and they should seek out an expert administrator, a paid professional, to apply the rules at the Open. A player’s livelihood and legacy shouldn’t depend on a pack of dilettantes with the judgment of a soused house party.

Fort Worth native Sally Jenkins is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. Contact her at sally.jenkins@washpost.com

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