Tour Confidential: Fallout from USGA disaster at Oakmont, More

June 27, 2016

Every Sunday night, conducts an e-mail roundtable with writers from Sports Illustrated and Golf Magazine. Check in every week for the unfiltered opinions of our writers and editors and join the conversation in the comments section below.

1.) A day after the bizarre conclusion of the U.S. Open, USGA executive director Mike Davis admitted that his organization “made a big bogey” by waiting until after the fourth round to ding Dustin Johnson with a one-stroke penalty for causing his ball to move on the 5th green; Davis, it should be noted, made no apologies for the ruling itself. How would you assess how the USGA has responded to the considerable fallout from one of the most hotly debated rules controversies in major championship history?

Alan Shipnuck, senior writer, Sports Illustrated (@AlanShipnuck): It was a brutal public relations hit for the USGA, and Davis’s quasi-apology didn’t really help. I got the first interview with him at Oakmont. Davis was upstairs in the locker room changing into his tie for the trophy presentation and I pounced on him. At that point DJ was on the 16th hole and Davis still hadn’t seen video of the incident! He was just going by reports from other staffers. It was clearly an institutional breakdown in communication and procedures. This will all lead to some soul-searching and clearly the USGA needs to overhaul how it handles things on the ground at big tournaments.

Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Sports IllustratedThe USGA bungled how to share the information. This turned into a public-relations fiasco, but at its heart it was a gray rules question: did Dustin Johnson cause that ball to move or not? It doesn’t matter that the movement was so minimal. To protect ALL THE OTHER PLAYERS — which is a fundamental role of a rules official — Johnson had to be asked if he would feel differently about his answer to that question after seeing video of it. THE MORE INFORMATION THE BETTER because the goal is turn in THE MOST ACCURATE SCORE POSSIBLE. Likely a better approach would have been to say to Johnson on the sixth tee, When you come in from your round, let’s have you review the tape, as we feel it shows you were responsible for the ball’s movement. But give the player the first crack at it. In my opinion, the videotape was completely inconclusive and I would have not accessed Johnson the shot, but to reach another conclusion is entirely reasonable. Now if you want to say there should be a new rule by which these minute movements shouldn’t matter, go ahead and try to draft such a rule. But right now, the rule is that any movement must be accounted for and the USGA was trying to do right by Johnson and the rest of the field. That is its obligation. The rest — including Tiger and Jordan and Big Jack himself — is noise. The USGA is not in the public-relations business. Its purpose is to stage a championship and assure that the rules, which it tries constantly to improve, are applied fairly to all. 

Mark Godich, senior editor, Sports Illustrated (@MarkGodich): For Davis to respond any other way would have been another public-relations nightmare. Admit your mistake and move on. We’ll find out soon enough if the USGA learned anything from this. 

Josh Sens, contributing writer, GOLF Magazine (@JoshSens): As Mark says exactly: It’s the golden rule of damage control in pretty much all aspects of sports, business and life. Acknowledge error. Apologize. Onwards and upwards. Unfortunately, the incident and its handling only underscores the sense that many people have of golf being out of step with the rest of the world.

Joe Passov, senior editor, Golf Magazine (@joepassov): I’m reminded here of the legal maxim, “Hard cases make bad law.” The whole thing was such a mess because there really weren’t established procedures in place for adjudication purposes. Right or wrong, it needed to be settled on that hole at that time. Credit Mike Davis, a really good guy, for stepping up and acknowledging the wrongdoing on the USGA’s part, but it doesn’t restore any faith in the system, because unless there are some changes effected, what’s to stop this from happening again?

Gary Van Sickle, senior writer, Sports Illustrated (@GaryVanSickle): Unbelievable is the only word. Nice of Davis to apologize for delay in penalty assessment, a terrible mistake. But by Monday, he had plenty of time to recognize that Hall and Pagel had wrongly assessed a penalty and ignored USGA’s own definition that “unless the facts show that a player caused the ball to move,” there is no penalty. I lost a lot of respect for the USGA on this one. This can’t happen again.

2.) After the episode at Oakmont, Chris Kirk tweeted, “There has always been a large contingent of @PGATOUR players that would like to separate from the @USGA and make our own rules to play by. It will be interesting to see if this fiasco makes that option a legitimate possibility.” Could this actually happen?

Shipnuck: Gawd, I hope not! Players are inherently selfish; they care only about what will help them. The USGA, for all of its flaws, serves the game. The people there make mistakes but their heart is in the right place. Letting the inmates run the asylum is not the answer.

Bamberger: Exactly. I love how the players had the bureaucrats and the architects and anybody trying to show them up. It’s part of the balance of power that makes the game great. 

Godich: I laughed. Exactly what good could come of this? 

Sens: Well, we’d at least have an opportunity to coin a term for the break-away. Would Gexit work? 

Shipnuck: Tour exits = Texits. Which sounds like Texas. Isn’t that already an independent nation-state? 

Godich: We’re working on it, Alan. 

Passov: Alan, I’m with you on this — on the USGA. Not so much on Texas.

Van Sickle: It’s not going to happen due to a mess of conflicting interests. That said, I’ve heard worse ideas.

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3.) Billy Hurley III, a 34-year-old former Navy lieutenant, won the Quicken Loans Invitational at Congressional on Sunday to claim his first PGA Tour title. The win came after a trying year for Hurley, whose father, Willard, took his own life last July. Where does Hurley’s victory rank on the list of best stories of 2016?

Shipnuck: Right near the top. To go from the Naval Academy to Kapalua is a pretty incredible journey. To have to overcome a crushing family tragedy that played out in public makes Hurley’s perseverance all the more remarkable. Much respect for him as a player and person. 

Godich: I didn’t think anyone could have topped Jim Herman’s out-of-nowhere victory in Houston, but Hurley just did. The 607th-ranked player in the world, a former Navy lieutenant still coping with the tragic death of his father, wins at Congressional, down the road from Annapolis as well as his hometown. You can’t make this stuff up.

Bamberger: Jim Herman 1, Bill Hurley 1A. Or the other way around. 

Sens: I profiled Hurley some years ago around the time of his pro debut. A modest, self-sacrificing guy who was easy to root for then and all the more so now after all he’s been through. Great story without a doubt. As for the biggest story, I don’t think we can top DJ breaking through at a major, but it doesn’t have quite the same heartstring pluck as Hurley’s.

Passov: Michael, I’m on your side, as far as “best” story of 2016 goes. However, I’m going to elevate Billy Hurley. Jim Herman’s story was remarkable in that it was the ultimate tale of perseverance, a grinder/journeyman finally made good. For Billy Hurley, making the five-year sacrifice for his country is so unusual that you rooted for him every time he teed it up. To see him overcome the tabloid-ready aspects of his father’s suicide, to emerge from the doldrums of competing in golf’s minor leagues and to do it as basically a hometown win. This is the best story so far in 2016.

Van Sickle: Nope, Dustin Johnson’s triumph over the field and The Empire (which tried to rattle him with a rules controversy) is No. 1. Hurley is No. 2. A Naval Academy grad winning in golf is an epic achievement on the order of other Navy athletes who went pro and starred: Napoleon McCallum, David Robinson and Roger Staubach, to name a couple.

4.) After more top golfers, including world no. 4 Rory McIlroy, last week said that they would not participate in the Rio Games in August, an IOC member said in a radio interview that the exodus of elite players is “appalling” and that he doesn’t think “the sport should be allowed to continue in the Games under that scenario. … The Olympics is about the best, and they pledged the best. Any sport that cannot deliver its best athletes, in my view, should not be there.” Is the official right?

Shipnuck: Obviously. The entitlement and point-missing among the top (male) golfers is depressing. They are on their way to getting their dying, boutique sport tossed from the biggest athletic happening in the world. Then they won’t have to worry about playing in the Olympics beyond 2020. A small win for these selfish players but a big loss for the sport to make new fans and reach new markets. 

Godich: Agree, Alan. And sadly, I believe the exodus has only begun. 

Bamberger: Ty Votaw, the Tour’s representative to the Olympic movement, has made the point that golf in the Olympics is an outstanding opportunity to grow the game. That’s the single-best thing about golf in the Olympics. But movements like that have to be natural and this feels forced to the players. In other words, the Masters has done a tremendous grow-the-game service to the game, but it came out of the players’s desire to say yes to an invitation from Bobby Jones and play his very good course for beaucoup bucks and social prestige. Olympic golf isn’t offering the players enough of either of those things and it might be because the players can see the Tour stamp all over this event. It doesn’t feel special enough. Zika is just a convenient out. 

Sens: I don’t disagree, and maybe this is all Monday morning caddying on my part, but Olympic golf felt like a forced idea from the beginning. It wasn’t hard to imagine all along that many of the top players would opt out for either money or scheduling reasons. We couldn’t have foreseen Zika. But we could have foreseen reluctance on the part of many players, not to mention a certain amount of apathy from fans. So in a sense, you could say that golf set itself up for failure in the first place with its Olympic aspirations. 

Passov: I’m so torn on this. On the one hand, I completely agree with the premise, that re-introducing golf into the Olympics would kick-start our sport again, absolutely necessary given flat, even declining participation rates. I thought it was especially significant for Asia — specifically China — to see the value of golf and to commit resources to it. Also a chance to make the game relevant in South America, where it has little traction. Yet, I’m a tennis fan, too. Outside of Andy Murray’s great Golden triumph in London, a home victory for sure, I couldn’t tell you who won or lost in the men’s or women’s event dating back to 1988. Tennis already has its majors, and Olympic coverage and impact is completely overwhelmed by other sports in the Summer Games. Maybe that’s the feeling I’ve had about golf all along. I’ll come close by disagreeing with the IOC official, and say that I just wish golf had debuted in London (2012) or Tokyo (2020) instead, and perhaps we wouldn’t be having this discussion.

Van Sickle: Instead of growing golf, the Olympics has a chance to grow the Zika virus globally and golfers are among the most at-risk. So some IOC turd is sniffling because some golfers are missing? The Olympics is strictly a for-profit, made-for-TV venture and this guy is annoyed because no Jason Day means the Aussie ratings might be done and the IOC may make a hundred grand less. Too bad, pal. I bet that guy isn’t going to spend eight hours a day walking the golf course swatting away mosquitoes. He doesn’t have the guts.

5.) A Chicago course just completed a $2.4 million renovation that included razing trees, removing nearly 40 bunkers and enlarging greens. The goal: attract more business from beginners and high-handicap players. Would more courses be wise to follow suit?  

Shipnuck: That seems a little extreme; there are plenty of easy courses out there. The key is to create, and market, tees for beginners that don’t have the stigma of the ladies tees. And in general for the game to be more welcoming in a variety of ways so beginners don’t feel so intimidated.

Bamberger: Disgree with my young colleague! Fewer trees, fewer lost balls, more pitching from semi-fluffly lies, faster play, more places to play AN ACTUAL MATCH is at the root of what makes golf so incredibly fun. It was never intended to be torture. 

Godich: A majority of players would find the game much more enjoyable if they’d swallow their ego and move up a set of tees. I know I have.

Sens: To say nothing of not keeping score. Or at least detaching from it. If there isn’t a big leaderboard behind the green when you’re putting, it’s not more important than your having fun. 

Passov: Yes, it’s time for a revolution, so long as the end goal is one thing: fun. I’ll upper-case it: F-U-N. Too many golf courses were built over the past 40 years to look great in selling real estate, and were sufficiently spectacular and challenging to make their marks in course rankings, which further helped in marketing efforts. Hey, business is business, but ultimately if people aren’t having any fun, they’re going to find something else to do — which they’ve done. If we can retrofit a slew of courses to make them more affordable, less costly to play and to maintain and to make them more fun, we’ve got a fighting chance to re-grow the game.

Van Sickle: Trees aren’t the problem unless there are way too many. The game takes too long, costs too much and is too difficult. Try taking out some bunkers and flattening those three-tiered greens and, oh yeah, cutting the rough and slowing the greens down.

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6.) Tiger Woods’s 7-year-old son, Charlie, tied for second in a U.S. Kids Golf event in Florida last week, an indication that the kid might have inherited a golf gene or two from his old man. Who is or was the most talented father-son tandem?

Shipnuck: Has to be Jay and Bill Haas. Lotsa big wins between them.

Godich: I see your Haas nomination and raise you one Old Tom Morris and Young Tom Morris. 

Bamberger: For a brief shining moment, it was Big Jack and Gary or Big Jack and Jackie, but that’s sort of like Christy Mathewson and his brother for combined wins. (Henry was 0-1 lifetime.) The Morrises, followed by the Haases, followed by the Geibergers, followed by the Boroses, followed by the Loves, plus the Duvals, the Floyds, the Players and many various others. 

Sens: Yeah, you’d have to go back to the hickory era of Willie Park Jr. and Sr., both Open champions, to top the Haas duo. Though given Tiger’s greatness at his peak, you could argue that the Tiger/Charlie duo is the most talented pairing already. 

Passov: It seems we’ve identified the usual suspects, with the Haas pere and fils the leading duo if the measuring stick is wins by both men. Let’s not forget Craig Stadler, with 13 wins, including a Masters, and son Kevin, who stunned Bubba Watson to nab the 2014 Waste Management Phoenix Open.

Van Sickle: I’ll go with Happy Gilmore and his son, Scrappy-Do.