Oklahoma rules experts weigh in on U.S. Open controversy

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With the furor over the USGA penalizing Dustin Johnson for his ball moving on the fifth green Sunday, we asked two of the most respected rules officials in Oklahoma for their take on the situation. Below are some thoughts from Gene Mortnesen, long-time rules expert who writes the rules column in every issue of Golf Oklahoma, and David Thompson, who serves as a rules official at many USGA events and serves on the USGA Regional Affairs Committee. Both gave their opinon just as golf fans and interested spectators and not in an official rules capacity. 

Also below is a view from local PGA professional Pat McCrate, who was an interested observer Sunday, as well as a question from the publisher.

Gene Mortensen 
As usual, a Rules situation is not as easy as it first appears.  In this respect, the Johnson situation requires two answers.  

First, we can all agree that a golf ball is an inanimate object; it doesn’t move by itself.  We can also agree that, however slightly, Johnson’s ball moved immediately after he moved his putter behind his ball in preparation for making a putt.  The issue, what caused it to move.  If it was the player, Rule 18-2a provides for a one stroke penalty.

There was no wind; the ball was not on a slope so gravity would apply; and there was no intervention by an outside agency.  When the official asked Johnson if anything else could cause the ball to move, Johnson said, "there is nothing else".  If there is nothing else which caused the movement, it came down to the player and, however unfortunate, the penalty was incurred. It doesn’t matter that the movement was slight, any movement is a violation.  And movement here is defined as; "A ball is deemed to have ‘moved’ is it leaves its position and comes to rest in any other place", and it did.   See the applicable Decision, 18-2/0.5.

 I applaud Johnson for getting the Official involved when he did as it shows that he was aware of a potential problem.  

 My second answer involves the timing of the situation.  Here Johnson had a problem on the 5th green and the penalty wasn’t actually assessed until he completed his round, three hours later.  It could be suggested that the USGA waited to see the number of strokes by which he won before it gave out the penalty.  I recall the very "knowledgeable" TV guys saying the length of time for the uncertainty would affect Johnson and the other competitors.  I think the passage of hours is inane on the part of the USGA and they deserve all of the criticism they will receive.  However, this is the U.S. Open and not match play, none of the competitors relied on the pending penalty to adjust their games; they all were grinding on every shot. 

In summary,  the Officials  came to the conclusion that when Johnson moved his putter to a place behind his ball it caused  his ball to move and he incurred the appropriate penalty.   There was no other explanation for the very slight movement of the ball.  The length of time it took the USGA to do its job, however, is just plain stupid and they deserve heaps of criticism which, I’m sure, they will receive. While they got the decision right, they could have done it in a timely manner.       

David Thompson: 

As you may recall, Rule 18 was changed beginning in 2016 resulting in the elimination of 18-2b in which the player was deemed to have caused that ball to move if it moved after address.  Rule 18-2 now says:

18-2. By Player, Partner, Caddie or Equipment

Except as permitted by the Rules, when a player’s ball is in play, if
(i) the player, his partner or either of their caddies:
• lifts or moves the ball,
• touches it purposely (except with a club in the act of addressing the ball), or
• causes the ball to move, or 

(ii) the equipment of the player or his partner causes the ball to move, the player incurs a penalty of one stroke.

Therefore, it is now a judgement call as to whether "something else" might have caused the ball to move.  From what was said on TV, DJ was asked if something else could have caused the ball to move and he didn’t reply.  In watching the replay, it appeared the ball moved immediately after he put the putter near the ball regardless if he grounded the putter or not.  Therefore, we have to rely on the following decision:


Weight of Evidence Standard for Determining Whether Player Caused His Ball to Move

When a player’s ball at rest moves, the cause of the ball’s movement has to be assessed. In many situations, the answer will be obvious: the player may have kicked the ball inadvertently, dropped his equipment on it, or otherwise clearly caused it to move; alternatively, the player may have taken no action near the ball and something else (such as a spectator or animal) clearly caused it to move.

In other situations, however, there may be some question as to why the ball moved – e.g., because it is less than certain that the player’s actions near the ball caused it to move, or because multiple factors were present that potentially might have caused the ball to move. 

All relevant information must be considered and the weight of the evidence must be evaluated (Decision 34-3/9). Depending on the circumstances, the relevant considerations may include, but are not limited to:
The nature of any actions taken near the ball (e.g., movement of loose impediments, practice swings, grounding club, taking stance, etc.),
Time elapsed between such actions and the movement of the ball,
The lie of the ball before it moved (e.g., on a closely-mown area, perched on longer grass, on a surface imperfection, etc.),
The conditions of the ground near the ball (e.g., degree of slope, presence of surface irregularities, etc.), and
Wind, rain and other weather conditions.
If the weight of evidence indicates that it is more likely than not that the player caused the ball to move, even though that conclusion is not free from doubt, the player incurs a one-stroke penalty under Rule 18-2 and the ball must be replaced. Otherwise, the player incurs no penalty and the ball is played as it lies unless some other Rule applies (e.g., Rule 18-1).

With reference to the considerations above, examples of situations where the weight of the evidence would indicate that the player caused the ball to move are:

A player’s ball lies on a flat portion of the putting green on a day with light  winds. The player addresses the ball and the ball immediately moves. Under these circumstances, it is more likely than not that the act of addressing the ball caused the ball to move.

A player’s ball lies on a tuft of grass in the rough. The player takes several practice swings near the ball, with the club coming into contact with grass in the process. Almost immediately, the ball then moves vertically down in the grass. Under these circumstances, it is more likely than not that the practice swings, in conjunction with the lie of the ball, caused the movement of the ball.

With reference to the considerations above, examples of situations where the weight of the evidence would indicate that the player did not cause the movement are:

On a very windy day, a player addresses the ball on the putting green. A short time later the ball moves slightly in the direction the wind is blowing. The strength and direction of the wind and the delay in the movement of the ball after the club was grounded indicate that factors other than the player are more likely than not to have caused the movement.

A player’s ball lies on an upslope in a closely-mown area. He makes a practice swing, but does so some distance from the ball as he is concerned that the ball may move. He carefully takes his stance but does not ground his club. Prior to making his backswing for the stroke, the ball moves. As the ball did not move while the player made the practice swing or took his stance, it is more likely than not that other factors (i.e., the ball’s lie on an upslope) caused the ball to move. (New)

Based on the above decision, apparently the USGA rules officials concluded there was not sufficient evidence that something else could have caused the ball to move and therefore resulted in the one stroke penalty.  It also appears in an effort to allow DJ to view the same thing that they were viewing, they decided to defer the penalty until he had done so.  In my opinion, this effort to do the right thing caused the uproar.  Remember, the referee with this match was not able to see what we saw on TV and was likely some distance away (10 -20 yards) when the ball moved.

As rules officials for golf, there are no flags to throw or whistles to blow.  Golf rules are fact based and sometimes the facts are not always known immediately and it is the responsibility of the committee to weigh all evidence.  

Pat McCrate
PGA Director of Golf, LaFortune Park and South Lakes

What a travesty this weekend could have been, thankfully avoided by Dustin Johnson’s all-world play.  The very group that claims to love and promote our game interjects themselves into the stretch of a magnificent golf tournament with the typical “we don’t care what you think” attitude.  This rule was recently changed by this same group to avoid this very same situation!?  I guess in the future when a walking rules official makes a ruling the player should ask for his boss, just in case.  DJ said he did not cause the ball to move – why question his integrity when video evidence and the rules official on the spot didn’t see the need to.  “Well what did make it move” says the USGA – perhaps severely sloped greens with ridiculous greens speeds and a sneeze in the crowd caused the ball to move! 

Ken MacLeod, Golf Oklahoma

The question I have, and seemingly everyone else, is that if there is zero evidence Dustin Johnson caused the ball to move, should that not carry more weight than a supposed lack of evidence of his innocence? Come on, USGA, innocent until proven guilty. We know the ball moved. There is no evidence whatsoever that Dustin Johnson caused it to move or did anything outside his normal pre-putt routine. The USGA is so lucky that this did not cause a playoff or a loss for Johnson, or the damage done to its reputation would have been incalcuable. As it is, it needs to change the rule so common sense can prevail. If it had not been for the rain, balls may have been moving all over Oakmont’s table top greens by Sunday afternoon.


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Ken MacLeod

Publisher Golf Oklahoma | Oklahoma's No. 1 Golf Source

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