Tour Confidential: Another USGA Rules Controversy; British Preview

July 11, 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.) Another U.S. Open, another rules controversy. At the U.S. Women’s Open on Sunday, Anna Nordqvist grounded her club — ever so gently — in a fairway bunker on the second hole of a playoff with Brittany Lang. Nordqvist didn’t know of her infraction until she was alerted by officials after she had struck her third shot on the next playoff hole, the par-5 18th hole. The USGA clearly got this ruling right but still caught some flack on social media for taking 20+ minutes to notify Nordqvist of the penalty. What’s your assessment of how this latest rules drama unfolded?

Alan Shipnuck, senior writer, Sports Illustrated (@AlanShipnuck): Golf tournaments are a logistical nightmare. The USGA is still trying to figure out the processes for handling this kind of event. No one on the ground became aware of the potential infraction until Nordqvist and Lang were on the 17th green. At that point officials had to physically get in front of TVs, watch the replay and make a decision. Then they had to alert on-course officials, who had to physically get in front of the players and tell them what was happening. Given all of these moving parts I think they handled it in a pretty timely manner. Post-DJ, the whole world was screaming that the USGA had to inform players ASAP. Now the Twittersphere is upset because that meant telling Lang before she hit her third shot but after Nordqvist had played hers. You can’t have it both ways. 

Josh Sens, contributing writer, GOLF Magazine (@JoshSens): Unfortunately it’s another instance that makes golf seem out of touch, or at least, out of pace, with the modern era. Why, in the age of instant replays from every angle, should it take more than a few minutes to resolve something like that? It shouldn’t. It also raises a question about the rule itself. After the U.S. Open, a lot of my non-golf friends were left asking, Wait, if he didn’t intend to move the ball, and the movement of the ball had no material effect on his score, and he moved the ball back before taking his actual stroke, why on earth would you penalize him for it? Seemed like a reasonable query. Touching the sand is a different issue, of course. But a similar question could be asked about the penalty assessed to Nordqvist. 

Gary Van Sickle, senior writer, Sports Illustrated (@GaryVanSickle): Only the USGA could mar both its men’s and women’s Opens with delayed rules penalties. If you accept that jostling two granules of sand is worthy of a two-shot penalty (why not one shot?), this case is open and shut. Except nobody involved knew it happened. Paul Azinger made an excellent point when he said it was unfair in a playoff situation to inform one player after she’d played her third shot but before the other one played. Lang was able to bail out and play it safe with the new information. He was right to call the timing an injustice. It’s funny how USGA officials there assured the media that they had a new plan to solve this replay-penalty issue for golf. Ooops. Back to the drawing board. You still didn’t get it right.

Joe Passov, senior editor, GOLF Magazine (@JoePassov): O.K., the USGA got the rule right, and while the timing of the reporting was unfortunate — after Nordqvist hit, but before Lang — at least they seemed to deal with it in the most expedient fashion they could. What’s more troubling are deeper, nagging, fundamental issues with this entire problem that go straight to the foundation of the sport: the rules. Why, indeed, Josh, should somebody get penalized for an act that had no material effect on his score? Why indeed, Gary, should Anna be slapped with a two-stroke penalty, as opposed to say, one-shot? High-def, slow-mo cameras have changed tournament golf forever, and for the worse. How can you say you’re “protecting the field,” unless those same cameras are zoomed in on every bunker shot played by every player in the field, for all four rounds? I’m sorry, but this isn’t “instant replay” as they have in the major team sports. Golf is an individual game, where competitors are supposed to self-police. I’ve been saying this for years, but I’m tired of TV cameras determining outcomes in golf tournaments.

Mark Godich, senior editor, Sports Illustrated (@MarkGodich): C’mon, USGA. This shouldn’t be that hard. In this technological age, why does it take so long to notify the player of the penalty? Even then, either tell Nordqvist before she has hit her third shot or wait until after Lang has hit hers. And the USGA should count its blessings that Lang holed the par putt on the second playoff hole. Otherwise, it might have changed the way she played the last hole. Thinking she is down a shot, maybe she pulls driver, then goes for the green in two and dumps it in the water, only to be told that she was a shot ahead after two holes. Can you imagine?

Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Sports IllustratedThere’s another message going out after these two Opens: you better call penalties on yourself, because Big Brother is watching. 

2.) British Open week is upon us! The last six times the Open has visited Royal Troon, the course has produced an American champion. Will that trend continue this week?

Shipnuck:Yes, Dustin is going to steamroll his way to another victory. There are a handful of other guys who are similarly long as DJ but into the wind he is by far the longest player in the world, with that low, piercing ball flight. The back nine at Troon is always a brutal, blustery slog. Dustin will bash his way to another landscape-altering win.

Godich: Hard to argue with Alan. I’ve used the horse racing Triple Crown analogy before. Nobody is hotter than DJ. Plus, he’s got the weight of the world lifted from his shoulders after winning his first major — especially winning the way he did.

Sens: DJ is a great choice, which means it’s not going to happen. And it won’t be one of his countrymen either. The Claret Jug goes to Branden Grace, who also hits a low, wind-cheating ball and whose relatively weak putting will not hold him back on Troon’s comparatively small greens. 

Passov: DJ finally got the job done at Oakmont, after so many close calls in majors. It’s going to happen to another guy this week, a guy who’s long been in a similar situation: Sergio Garcia. He’s pretty hot in his own right, with a win at the AT&T Byron Nelson and a stellar effort at Oakmont, and in the past two years, has finished T2 and T6 at the Open Championship. On a course that favors great ballstriking, one with greens that aren’t too vexing, it’s Sergio’s time.

Van Sickle: Sorry, but when was the last time the British Open was predictable besides the Tiger Woods Era? Yes, I like DJ’s chances but if it’s raining sideways or blowing 40 mph, who knows? Danny Willett’s straight ball might be formidable.

Bamberger: I don’t know what you people have been ingesting. It is so obvious that Louis Oosthuizen will win his second Open next week and reclaim his status as the best player in the world with two majors. 

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3.) We’re on the cusp of a frenetic stretch for the men’s game, in which many of the top players will compete in the British Open in Scotland this week, the PGA Championship in New Jersey two weeks later and the Olympic Games in Brazil just two weeks after that. Is this condensed schedule asking too much of the best players and how do you expect they’ll respond to it?

Godich: Asking too much? Not exactly. In fact, I’d say the condensed schedule could have produced quite the opposite. Think of the possibilities. 

Shipnuck I’m pretty sure NFL players strap it on 16 weeks out of 17. I think these PGA Tour pansies will be fine.

Sens: Oh, the suffering! Hold for a minute please while I wipe the salty tears off my keyboard. No, it’s not too much to ask, but that doesn’t mean some players won’t act like it is.

Passov: It’s just a matter of adjusting expectations and routines, and the greatest of the great players usually figure out how to do that. There was a three-year stretch in the 1960s where the British Open and PGA Championship were played back to back. In 1963, Jack Nicklaus went T3 in the Open, then won the PGA and in ‘64, he went 2 and T2. It can be done.

Van Sickle: What’s the problem? They’re all getting the Olympics week off, as near as I can tell. Are any Americans going to go? Nobody is forcing them to play the FedEx Cup. Three majors in six weeks is kinda neatly wrapped.

Bamberger: I feel sorry for them, I really do. Three events in six weeks, that’s too much. I get tired just thinking about all that first-class travel, etc. 

4.) On Saturday, Dustin Johnson became the first U.S. golfer to withdraw from the Olympics, joining a long list of international stars that includes Jason Day, Rory McIlroy and Adam Scott. Does the increasingly lackluster field for Rio diminish the value and significance of what will be the first gold medal won by a golfer since 1904?

Shipnuck: Sure. At this point the Olympics is basically the World Challenge:15 or so good players. It’s going to take some good golf to prevail but there’s just not that many guys to beat. Bummer. 

Sens: No doubt it will be diminished. But Olympic golf had a sense of inflated promise all along. The majority of top players (not to mention fans) never seemed to have their hearts in it, even if some were saying the right things about playing for pride of country and the honor of being in the Games. And then came all that hoo-ha about “growing the game.” In Brazil, where I used to live and where I still have friends and family, pretty much everyone sensed the falseness of that from the start. And Brazil was supposed to be ground zero for that growth. People surely sensed the falseness elsewhere as well. And, in the end, is that really any way to drum up excitement around your event? What other sport goes into the Olympics with that as its self-serving mantra? To grow itself? Do pole vaulters talk about growing pole vaulting? They’re there because they want to be there; because it’s the biggest, most meaningful stage for them. Swap out “golf” for any other sport in that “grow the___” phrase and you notice how tone deaf it really is. 

Passov: You’ve nailed it, Josh. I never once sat and watched the Olympics, as a kid or an adult, and thought, “How cool would it be if golf were part of this?” Still, as I’ve mentioned before, I really wanted it to work, just because golf has taken so many hits in the last few years. It needed a boost on a global stage. Without the top male players competing, the impact will definitely be muted.

Godich: No one is going to much care who wasn’t there when the men’s and women’s winners are having gold medals draped around their necks and their national anthems are played. I hope that at least one of the defectors is watching and thinks, “Hey, that could have been me.” And speaking of the women, kudos to them for embracing the event. 

Bamberger: I don’t agree, Mark. This was supposed to be a tryout for the 2020 Games. It has already failed, no matter how good the competition may prove to be. Tim Finchem promised the IOC that he could deliver the best players in the world. He over-promised and under-delivered. An embarrassing but not especially meaningful near-final note at the end of a long, enriching successful career. 

Van Sickle: All it takes is one good medal-winner and nobody will care who wasn’t there. And all it takes is one security incident for everyone who went to wish they hadn’t. They’re gold medals, they’re nice, they’re not major championships.

5.) South African Jaco van Zyl is skipping the British Open and PGA Championship to prepare for the Olympics. What does van Zyl see that others don’t?

Shipnuck: Jaco is clearly the smartest man in golf. Based on his career results, he has close to zero chance of winning the Open or PGA. But a few hot rounds and he could steal a medal and everlasting glory at the Olympics. Makes sense to me. 

Godich: Based on the apathy exhibited by the stars, van Zyl undoubtedly knows that golf could quickly end up back on the endangered games’ list when the IOC discusses which sports are out for 2024. Might as well make the most of the opportunity.

Sens: Who’s Jaco van Zika? Clearly, for him, Olympic golf resonates. And all power to him for that. It would be nice if the majority of the golf world felt the same but that’s obviously not the case.

Passov: This is a fair question, to be sure, yet I don’t think I really care what Jaco van Zyl is doing or why he’s doing it. Hey, I see he’s won 14 times on the Sunshine Tour (South Africa) and moved into the World Top 50 in February, but the man has never even made the cut at a major. Whatever it is that van Zyl sees, it’s certainly not a golf course on a Saturday or Sunday of a major.

Van Sickle: I think he’s looking for a top-60 finish, which he couldn’t get in a major.

Bamberger: Ridiculous, I think. You could actually do both. But one of the great things about golf is how the players have to decide for themselves how to manage their careers, and I give him a lot of credit for his independent thinking, even if I don’t get it. I don’t need to get it. It’s his career. 

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6.) After three prominent black members of the golf community severed their ties to the USGA for refusing to move the 2017 U.S. Women’s Open from Donald Trump’s New Jersey course, women’s rights activist Martha Burk lambasted the USGA for “kowtowing to Trump’s overtly racist and sexist views.” (The USGA responded, saying, “We have reiterated that we do not share his views, and that is still true. … It is important to note that [the club] has fully complied with our standing anti-discriminatory member policy, which we will continue to require of all championship sites.”) If the USGA continues to draw such harsh criticism, could you see the association acquiescing?

Shipnuck: The resignations mean more than Burk’s rhetoric; those are USGA people repudiating the USGA from inside the halls of power. But the blue jackets have refused to budge throughout months and months of Trump being Trump so what could possibly change their minds at this point? 

Godich: The USGA is going to do what the USGA is going to do. Among other things, this is the organization that waits a half-dozen holes to tell a player he might be penalized, an organization that uses 18 playoff holes to crown its men’s national champion and three such holes for the women. Should we be surprised? 

Sens: If the clamor gets loud enough, I suppose they could pivot. But I think it’s more likely that they take the Paul Ryan approach: disapproving but not pulling away entirely.

Passov: If the USGA wanted to yank the 2017 U.S. Women’s Open from Trump Bedminster, they’ve had many, many months to do so. The PGA of America certainly acted quickly enough when they withdrew its Grand Slam exhibition from Trump National Los Angeles last fall. Yet, there’s some logic to the USGA’s position, that the club itself doesn’t discriminate, and perhaps, as a minimum standard, that ought to be enough.

Van Sickle: It’s one thing when a club is practicing gender discrimination. It’s another when it’s about a famous guy with a big mouth. This moves into the realm of politics. If Trump is the Democratic nominee for President–yeah, take a moment to stop laughing–this might not have come up. Or maybe it would. This is simply about not liking Trump.

Bamberger: I agree with Gary. Trump’s bombastic rhetoric doesn’t mean you can’t do business with him. BUT the USGA should never have gotten into bed with Trump in the first place. The old, pure USGA never would have. The great USGA venues, like Oakmont or even public courses like Bethpage, don’t exist to make money. I could relate to the USGA more back when it was more like a university and less like a corporation.