“The law is a ass, a idiot,” Mr. Bumble told Mr. Brownlow in Oliver Twist, his point being that while, yes, the ball had moved, there was no conclusive evidence he had caused it to move. I only mention this misappropriated example of 19th century jurisprudence to illustrate how thoroughly screwed up the final round of the 2016 U.S. Open was, and how fortunate the USGA is that Dustin Johnson has the competitive temperament of a sand dollar. If another Tour pro had been assessed a provisional one-stroke penalty for a nonexistent infraction while closing in on his first major title—Sergio Garcia, say—the greens of Oakmont would now be scorched earth and the Open trophy would have at least one broken handle.
In fact, if the man they call DJ had not shown preternatural poise under pressure, Oakmont would no longer be remembered as the course where Johnny Miller won the 1973 U.S. Open with a final-round 63. It would be the place where rent-a-cops hijacked the national championship and left an indelible stain in the record book.
You may not know the particulars. Johnson, addressing a short par putt on the 5th green, saw his ball move backwards an iota—i.e., “an extremely small amount.” That is not in dispute. The golfer told the rules official assigned to his twosome that his ball had moved, but neither he nor his playing partner, Lee Westwood, believed he had caused it to move. He hadn’t touched the ball with his putter, and he hadn’t grounded the clubhead to cause the ball to roll. End of story.
If only. On the 12th tee, with Johnson leading Shane Lowry by two strokes, two senior rules officials informed Johnson that slo-mo replays, tarot cards and a ouija board left them with only one possible explanation for the ball’s movement: Dustin must’a did it. But don’t worry, they told an eerily compliant Johnson, you can view the evidence at the end of your round before accepting your one-stroke penalty.
The evidence was garbage, or, at best, “inconclusive,” the term used to uphold an MLB umpire’s call when technology can’t sort it out. Nevertheless, out of an abundance of fair-mindedness, the rules men interrupted the other golfers in contention—Lowry, Garcia, Scott Piercy, Jim Furyk and Branden Grace—to tell them that the man they were chasing might be getting a penalty stroke. The effect, of course, was to leave everybody in the dark about the leader’s actual score. Strategically speaking, the U.S. Open had become a blind auction.
How popular was the USGA’s action? Well, the Zika virus has gotten better reviews. “This a joke?” tweeted defending champion Jordan Spieth.
“Absolutely shocking,” echoed two-time U.S. Open champ Ernie Els. “No way he made the ball move.”
Absentee adjudicator and world No. 3 Rory McIlroy’s verdict was equally succinct: “No penalty whatsoever for DJ. Let the guy play without this crap in his head.”
But here’s where the USGA got lucky. The crap, as far as anybody could tell, didn’t get into Johnson’s head. “They said they were going to look at it after we got done,” he said after his round. “I felt like I wasn’t going to be penalized, so I just went about my business.” Indeed, Johnson played like a fellow with nothing on his mind—a characterization, if we’re to be honest, that has haunted him in the wake of several major-championship flameouts.
But single-mindedness is not the same as empty-headedness. Johnson made that abundantly clear down the stretch on Sunday, bashing monster fade after monster fade over Oakmont’s hazardous terrain and holing virtually every must-make putt. And with news of his probationary status spreading through the grandstands by way of ear-radios, Johnson suddenly found himself a fan favorite. The roars he got on the 72nd hole for his flag-stuffing approach shot and curving conversion for birdie were the loudest of his career. Then, with nothing to gain by challenging the USGA’s overreach, Johnson signed for a 69 and a three-stroke victory—when, in fact, he had shot 68 and won by four. “I didn’t think I did anything to cause the ball to move,” he said, “but at the end of the day it didn’t affect what happened.”
Or did it? Garcia made three bogeys down the stretch, Piercy bogeyed the last, and Lowry missed three short par putts. Any of those gents could fairly complain that the rules imbroglio diverted their attention and possibly cost them a major title.
Don’t take me for Trump. I’m not saying that the men and women of the USGA are asses or idiots, or that they are anything less than honorable in their dedication to the Rules of Golf. But the pros who tweeted and the spectators who squawked understood that justice is best served when common sense and humility prevail. As Mr. Bumble put it, “If that’s the eye of the law … I wish [ the law’s eye] may be opened by experience.”
Oakmont provided the experience. Now the USGA needs to open its eyes.