I am not a fan of golf. I will watch the end of the fourth day of a major tournament, and I think the stories by recreational golfers about their rounds are every bit as fascinating as horse players describing that day’s beats.
But the closing day of the U.S. Open on Sunday introduced an aspect of surreality that may be unique in sports. Dustin Johnson, who ended up winning, was preparing a putt on the 5th hole when he did something described as “grounding” his putter. Something caused his ball to move a truly imperceptible amount – “distance” would be significantly overstating what occurred.
Obviously, if a golfer does something to alter the ball placement, whether deliberate or inadvertent, it should be counted as a stroke. Had an official determined that occurred, fine. But it was not until the 12th hole, according to ESPN, that an official approached Johnson and told him that he might be penalized a stroke.
Again, if a review of the “incident” had taken place and it was determined that Johnson should be penalized, fine. It may have taken too long in this day of endless replays, but at least he had seven holes to deal with it. Except that a decision would not be made until all the players had completed their rounds.
So in a contest that was close to the end, no one knew if the leader was two strokes ahead or three strokes ahead. It’s an uncertainty that likely would have affected the play of Johnson and his closest competitors. And a decision would not be made until everyone was of the course – and it’s a decision that could have been made two hours earlier while play was underway.
There are parallels in other sports except that any reviews are done promptly and a decision made before play can resume. In football or hockey, it would be whether the ball or the puck crossed the goal line. In baseball, it’s whether a ball was a home run or just touched the outfield wall. The idea that such a call would be after the game was “over” is, of course, ludicrous. Yet that is what the United States Golf Association did. They ended up counting it as a stroke, but Johnson had a sufficient lead so it did not affect the order of finish.
Horse racing, fortunately, does not have an analogous situation. Yes, there are disqualifications that can happen because of the circumstances during a race, but you cannot stop the action while the stewards huddle. And drug testing disqualifications happen several days later, but it does not affect those who already cashed (or did not).
It would almost have been worth it for the USGA to add a stroke that would have affected the order of finish just for the reaction among the public, some of whom presumably had wagered on the event. Their decision-making process is a level of incompetence that stands head and shoulders over other major sports.