OAKMONT, Pa. — As different as they are, the Masters and U.S. Open had two things in common this year.
First, and most peculiar, is that Lee Westwood played the final round with both champions — Danny Willett at Augusta National, Dustin Johnson at Oakmont. He now is everyone’s favorite pairing for Sunday at Royal Troon unless the tee time is anywhere near the breakfast hour.
Second, both majors are remembered as much for blunders as brilliance.
At the Masters, it was Jordan Spieth hitting two balls in the water on No. 12 and losing a five-shot lead with a 41 on the back nine.
At Oakmont, it was the USGA adding new meaning to the “toughest test in golf.” Johnson, with a history of failure in the majors, had to play the final seven holes on the hardest course in America without knowing if his score was going to be one shot higher when he finished.
Not since Hubert Green played under a death threat in the final round at Southern Hills in 1977 has a U.S. Open champion faced so much uncertainty.
Blame that on the USGA officials — not for giving him the one-shot penalty, but for keeping their noses in a rule book without looking up to realize they were damaging the integrity of the championship by waiting.
If they knew he was going to be penalized, they should have told him immediately and, in the words of Jack Nicklaus, “let him get on with the job.”
The USGA acknowledged as much Monday. It released a statement saying it regretted the distraction it caused by waiting.
“While our focus on getting the ruling correct was appropriate, we created uncertainty about where players stood on the leaderboard after we informed Dustin on the 12th tee that his actions on the fifth green might lead to a penalty,” the statement said. “This created unnecessary ambiguity for Dustin and the other players, as well as spectators on site, and those watching and listening on television and digital channels.”
USGA executive director Mike Davis summed it up more succinctly Monday night on Golf Channel.
“We made a big bogey,” Davis said.
The good news? Johnson made birdie at the end, not that he needed it. Even with the penalty, he won by three shots.
Johnson is the U.S. Open champion. On this there is no debate.
And there should be no debate on the penalty. Any anger should be directed at the rule, not the officials enforcing it. They have a duty to apply the rules evenly to the entire field.
The guideline for Rule 18-2 is that a player must be penalized if the weight of evidence is more likely than not that he caused it to move. The evidence was video that the USGA thought deserved a closer look.
The weight against Johnson was his action around the golf ball and how quickly the ball moved after he lightly grounded his club, took two practice strokes, lightly set his putter down and moved it behind the ball.
Among the questions to consider: Would the ball have moved if Johnson was not on the green?
The facts don’t change just because so many of his peers — Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth, Tiger Woods among them — took to social media to declare Johnson did not cause the ball to move. McIlroy made one of the more reasonable points when he tweeted, “If it was me I wouldn’t hit another shot until this farce was rectified.”
That was the mistake, and the USGA owned up to it.
It was reminiscent of 1994 at Oakmont when Trey Holland, the USGA president renowned for his knowledge of the rules, allowed Ernie Els in the final round to get relief from a temporary immovable object — a TV crane that was movable. When he faced the media, Holland said, “I made a mistake.”
Mistakes happen to players and officials. Arnold Palmer once played two shots from behind the 12th green at Augusta National because he was certain he should get relief from an embedded ball, even though the official said he could not. Palmer made double bogey with the embedded ball, par with the second ball, and he was told on the 15th fairway he was right and would get a par. He won the 1958 Masters by one shot.
It’s time to move on, and to be thankful that Johnson played so brilliantly down the stretch.
Will the USGA make more mistakes? Probably.
This is what happens as an organization tries to produce the most extreme test in golf. That is the identity of the U.S. Open. Sandy Tatum, a former USGA president, once famously said the U.S. Open was not set up to embarrass the best players, but to identify them.
Every now and then, it’s the USGA that gets embarrassed.