By Yahoo Sports
OAKMONT, Pa. — Jordan Spieth couldn't believe it. Rory McIlroy was incredulous. And if you want the ultimate authority chiming in on the USGA nearly turning the final round of the 116th U.S. Open into a complete debacle, how about Jack Nicklaus.
With Dustin Johnson in the clubhouse at Oakmont Country Club, reviewing video with the USGA to determine if he'd incur a one-stroke penalty for something that happened more than three hours earlier, Nicklaus, standing on the 18th green where he would soon put the gold medal around Johnson's neck, was asked if he'd ever experienced anything like what Johnson just did.
Here's what Johnson experienced: standing over a putt on the fifth hole, Johnson saw his ball move. Certain he hadn't grounded his club, which would have meant a 1-stroke penalty, Johnson still called in a rules official to be safe. After a brief discussion, the official was satisfied that Johnson had done nothing wrong, and play resumed.
That is until seven holes later, when a group of officials approached Johnson on the 12th tee, telling him they "believed" he'd caused the ball to move. Instead of assessing a penalty right then and there, they decided they wanted to wait until after the round so Johnson could review the video with them. (You know, kind of like how NBA officials do with Draymond Green when he kicks someone in the groin.)
At the time, Johnson held a two-stroke lead over Shane Lowry. Or was it a one-stroke lead? He didn't know, because the USGA wasn't willing to make the call. (You know, kind of like when those same NBA officials determine after the game if Steph Curry's foot was on the line for that crucial 3-pointer.)
Nicklaus has played in a few tournaments. A few U.S. Opens (41) even. Had he ever had a rules official approach him in the middle of a round to tell he might have incurred a penalty?
"Not yet," he said, laughing. "I think it's very unusual. I mean, you either have [a penalty] or you don't have one, that's my feeling. I think it's very unfair to the player. … They could possibly penalize him, but if you're gonna do that, then they should have penalized him, and let him get on with the job."
Nicklaus could afford to laugh about it, considering the outcome – Johnson winning by four, then three when the USGA finally made its determination that a penalty would be assessed. But that's only because the USGA got bailed out by Johnson refusing to crack and Lowry fading at the end.
After the powwow at the 12th, Austin Johnson, Dustin's brother and caddie, knew he had to keep his brother focused. He urged him to put the potential penalty out of his head, to focus on the course, to stay positive.
"I tried telling him not to think about it, but the whole time I'm sitting there thinking about it," Austin Johnson said afterward. "So yeah, I don't know how he did it."
And that's just it. All credit goes to Johnson for not getting rattled – he played even par from there on in – but what if he hadn't? And what if Lowry hadn't bogeyed three of the final five holes?
"We gotta play the last seven holes with the lead in a major championship thinking that we gotta win by two, basically," Austin Johnson said of their thought process, "or we may have to win by two, not even knowing we have to win by two."
Yeah, this seriously happened in the final round of the U.S. Open.
The USGA explained it away by saying getting the ruling right is more important than the timing of it all. But then in the next breath, Thomas Pagel, the USGA's senior director of rules, said, "Based on the evidence that we saw, we are comfortable that a one-stroke penalty was to be incurred."
Mike Davis, executive director of the USGA, said as much immediately after the round when he conveyed that Johnson was told, "Based on the video we have seen, we believe there's going to be a one-stroke penalty; we'll make the final decision when you come in and see the video and explain it to you."
So they had determined that a one-stroke penalty would be assessed, only they wanted to show the video to Johnson before assessing a penalty because why? "He was quite adamant that he had not grounded the club, and that was certainly the case," explained USGA rules official Jeff Hall. "Again, he was certain he had not addressed the ball. And that was the case, but he did ground the putter proximate to the ball."
If grounding the club is the only issue, and you've determined he grounded his club, then what's left to discuss?
"We just wanted him to realize that we were concerned, and we wanted to make him aware of that so that he could strategically make decisions that he needed to make for the balance of the round, and that based on the conversation as it evolved, we said, 'We'll show it to you when you come in,' " Hall said. "'We'd like you to have the benefit of what we have, of what we've seen,' so that hopefully he could get more comfortable with the situation."
Like, in a recliner?
USGA officials should be on their knees praying to the golf gods that this tournament didn't come down to a single stroke. Had it, things would have gone sideways in a hurry. Players were publically behind Johnson. Fans were rooting for him because of the non-ruling ruling. The game's most mythical legend was questioning the decision right there on the 18th green.
"We can't waver about the rules of golf," Hall said when asked if there was a sense of relief the penalty didn't factor in the outcome. "We play by the rules."
If this is playing by the rules, the rules need to be changed.