Did the USGA Shows Signs That We Have Been Heard?

By | June 18, 2018

It seems to be a tradition these days to fire hate at the USGA and the way they are conducting their tournaments. Just read through this blog and you’ll see I’ve been loudly in that camp myself. Seemingly unnecessarily strict and inconsistent rules enforcement. Tolerance of slow play. And, whoa boy, the way they choose to set up the courses. This week, did we see the USGA actually begin to display signs that these complaints have been heard and take action to improve? Perhaps. Let’s briefly walk through some of the evidence.

Phil Mickelson

By now you’ve no doubt seen the moment that Mickelson slapped his rolling putt back towards the 13th hole on Saturday. The USGA committee assessed a 2-stroke penalty under Rule 14-5 which simply reads: “A player must not make a stroke at his ball while it is moving.” Mickelson accepted the penalty without argument and would later claim that he was aware of the rule and purposely chose to take it. In the moment, he determined that the 2-stroke penalty was better than allowing his ball to roll off of the green placing him in an even more difficult position for his next shot.

Not many people bought that. They accused the USGA of giving one of the game’s biggest stars preferential treatment. They demanded to know why Rule 1.2 wasn’t enforced? Well, that one is fairly straightforward. Let’s take a look at the rule.

1-2. Exerting Influence on Movement of Ball or Altering Physical Conditions
A player must not (i) take an action with the intent to influence the movement of a ball in play or (ii) alter physical conditions with the intent of affecting the playing of a hole.

Exceptions:

1. An action expressly permitted or expressly prohibited by another Rule is subject to that other Rule, not Rule 1-2.

2. An action taken for the sole purpose of caring for the course is not a breach of Rule 1-2.

The kicker is the penalty that is allowed under Rule 1-2.

*Penalty for Breach of Rule 1-2:
Match play – Loss of hole; Stroke play – Two strokes.

*In the case of a serious breach of Rule 1-2, the Committee may impose a penalty of disqualification.

It seemed clear that Mickelson slapped at his moving ball with little intent of actually making the putt. For many, this clearly met the definition of a serious breach of Rule 1-2 and Mickelson should have been disqualified from the tournament. There were later reports from the media that Mickelson had contacted the USGA saying he was willing to withdraw from the tournament due to the outrage.

But it’s the language in Rule 1-2.1 that tells the story. The USGA rules committee determined that the existence of Rule 14-5 met the definition of another rule being in place. Rule 14-5 supersedes enforcement of Rule 1-2, resulting in a simple 2-stroke penalty with no provision for a serious breach resulting in disqualification.

Was it the correct decision? I see no reason to question the logic the USGA used. It’s rather black-and-white. But, was the ruling within the “traditions and spirit” of the game? Why does Rule 14-5 even exist when Rule 1-2 is already in place? Why are the penalties not in sync with each other? We’ll be debating all of those questions for years and we can also expect the rules to be re-examined in the near future.

Was this evidence that the USGA was softening their often overly technical reading of the rules during their tournaments? I don’t think so. The committee has fairly stable ground to stand on for their ruling. This wasn’t the USGA deciding to go easy on a star player. They enforced the rules as written. We can still expect the USGA to continue to do so in the future.

Bottom line. Should Mickelson have been disqualified from the U.S. Open for his actions on the 13th green on Saturday? Yes. Did the rules allow for it? No. The USGA got it right even if their rules did not.

Pace of Play

The USGA has heard much about the pace of play at their events. In 2017, Erin Hills was expected to be a marathon because of the length and layout of the course. People were predicting we’d see 6-hour rounds. For the record, in 2017 Brooks Koepka played his winning Sunday round at Erin Hills in about 4 1/2 hours. Yesterday, while winning his second consecutive U.S. Open, Koepka and Johnson played their Sunday round at Shinnecock Hills in about 4 1/4 hours.

Is this to the credit of the USGA? Well, to a degree it is. The pace of play rules are an evolving issue. The R&A and the European Tour are even experimenting with shot clocks. People want to play the game faster and they want their televised tournaments played faster as well. But enforcement of pace of play rules remains difficult. If the entire field is playing slowly who do you penalize? If one member of a group is having a bad day do the playing partners also receive a penalty? Who’s job is it to determine which player is most at fault for slow play if not?

The USGA has even gone so far as to institute a Rule 5.6 going into 2019 to encourage faster play by stating that each player should be able to complete their shot within 40 seconds once it becomes their turn. The key words being “should” and “encourage.” The USGA knows there’s only so much they can do. The following is taken right from their new guidelines: “Enforcing pace of play will continue to be primarily up to each Committee, as there are limits to what the Rules themselves can do to insist that players play promptly.”

The USGA will continue to put players on the clock and do what they can to encourage faster play. However, until players are given specific rules with consistent enforcement and resulting penalties, little will change. Did the USGA cause Brooks Koepka to play his winning round in just over 4-hours yesterday? I don’t think so.

The USGA Loses Shinnecock Hills Again

As I and nearly the entirety of the golfing press wrote about on Saturday, the USGA “lost” Shinnecock Hills again when the course dried out more than they expected. Upon further contemplation, it wasn’t that the USGA lost the entire course, but some key greens and pin placements became increasingly unreasonable as the day went on.

The clearest evidence of this was the insane rise up the leaderboard by Tony Finau and Daniel Berger. Both players had relatively early tee-times and had started the day 11-shots off of the lead. Both shot impressive rounds of 66 while the winds were down and the greens still contained some moisture. By the end of the day, both found themselves playing in the final group on Sunday leading the U.S. Open.

Having been embarrassed by the course conditions at Shinnecock Hills in 2004 and now appearing to have not learned that lesson in 2018, the USGA set to work Saturday night and Sunday morning to fix that. Greens were heavily watered. They were mowed to be a bit slower. Pins in many cases were placed in the easiest position they could find. Whatever unfortunate events happened on the course on Sunday afternoon the USGA appeared determined to not let themselves be blamed.

For the most part, it appeared to work. Greens remained receptive throughout Sunday. Good shots were rewarded. Bad shots were penalized. Yes, Tommy Fleetwood had chances at shooting a 62 if not for some weak putting down the stretch. Rickie Fowler had gone out early posting an impressive 65. But, other than those two scores, players were not going particularly low and the winning score was 1-over-par for the tournament. The USGA got the course set-up correct.

Or did they?

Sometimes you can’t win. The USGA is in that position right now because of their history. It will take more than a few acts of generosity and compassion to correct decades of seemingly unreasonable actions. However, upon reflection, I’m willing to give the USGA the opportunity to continue to prove that they are a changed organization. Sunday at the U.S. Open was a good first step in the right direction.