The Cold Hard Truth: On Sports

USGA Bogeys Again Reply in Penalties


USGA Bogeys Again Reply in Penalties

BY Kevin Krest


USGA U.S. Women’s Open Controversy I:

For 74 holes, the Women’s Open was compelling and unpredictable, with a wave of terrific Korean players trying to hold off a field that was a dynamic international assortment of wonderful golfers. The tournament was played on the beautiful and challenging CordeValle in the foothills of Northern California near Silicon Valley. The USGA did a great job of setting up the course in a way that rewarded accurate shots, punishing poor ones, without brutalizing the players in the process.

When American Brittany Lang bogeyed the seventeenth to set up a playoff with Anna Nordqvist, we were going to be treated to something the men don’t do: Award the championship on Sunday with a three-hole aggregate playoff. After both players parred the first two holes, or at least we thought they had, a high definition replay of Nordqvist’s bunker shot on seventeen showed that she had barely grounded her club in the sand, a clear rules violation, but then things got a bit squirrelly.

Even prior to the players teeing off on the final hole, it was apparent that a violation had taken place and that it would result in a two-stroke penalty for Nordqvist, potentially  eliminating her from contention. But the eighteenth at CordeValle is a reachable par 5 and if the Swede had known about the penalty before her tee shot, she probably would have chosen to hit driver instead of three wood in an effort to put her in position, to go for the green in two.

Instead, she wasn’t notified until after her third shot. But wait, this gets better. Lang was told about the penalty on Nordqvist before hitting her own approach, creating a clear competitive advantage for the American. In fact, Lang changed clubs after the notification, choosing to play a safer shot knowing that a par would win the tournament.

Now it isn’t as if the USGA hadn’t just been through a very similar set of circumstances at last month’s Men’s Open at Oakmont. Dustin Johnson and his pursuers had to play seven holes knowing that a penalty might be assessed for a possible ball movement infraction on the fifth hole of the final round. Fortunately for the ruling body of golf in the U.S., Johnson made the penalty, which was in fact assessed post-round, irrelevant by leaving the eighteenth green with a four-shot lead.

In the USGA’s defense, the two situations were a little different. Nordqvist clearly was guilty of the infraction while Johnson’s case was much more subjective. Of course, the consensus of the golf world is that they got the decision totally wrong, even to the extent that Johnson’s playing partner agreed that the ball had not moved due to anything that Johnson did.

In addition, the timing on Sunday’s infraction was tricky in that the playoff was moving quickly and the decision makers really needed to get it right, because the outcome of the championship would almost surely be determined by the ruling. The mistake was in the timing of the notification of the players. One got notified before her third shot, the other after. That’s clearly a mistake, and one that easily could have been avoided by better communication and thought. Johnson was able to overcome the bungling and still get his first major win. Nordqvist had no chance and thus lost out on an opportunity at her second major victory.

Unfortunately for the USGA, the controversy totally overshadowed what was a great tournament, one that had a great chance of increasing interest in women’s golf around the world.

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