Sunday, June 19, 2016

Dustin Johnson may be penalized for moving ball, or maybe not

OAKMONT, Pa.—Standing on the 12th tee, Dustin Johnson held a two-stroke lead in the U.S. Open. Then several USGA officials approached Johnson, and his lead might not have been so large after all.

Back on the fifth green, Johnson had stood over a short par putt, then backed off and called in a rules official. His ball had moved. Johnson wanted to let the official know of the movement, and that he had not grounded his club. If he had, he would be facing a one-stroke penalty.

The rules official at the fifth hole was satisfied that Johnson hadn't incurred a penalty, so Johnson continued on, draining the putt.

But video replay may have shown rules officials otherwise. USGA officials approached Johnson on the 12th tee to inform him that the tale of the moving ball wasn't yet finished.

After the discussion with officials on the 12th tee, Johnson's playing partner Lee Westwood appeared to be pleading a case to the USGA officials as they walked toward the fairway. Fox Sports commentator Curtis Strange approached the USGA officials, asking for clarification. They refused.

"Really?" Strange, a two-time U.S. Open winner, wondered aloud.

Yes, really.

USGA officials then informed Johnson that he might be facing a one-stroke penalty. Or he might not. In other words, Johnson would be forced to play the remaining holes not knowing whether he needed to put a two-stroke margin ahead of the rest of the field.

Jeff Hall, the USGA's managing director for Open championships, visited the Fox Sports set soon afterward to indicate that the USGA believed the ball had moved because of Johnson's actions, and asked him—during the critical moments of one of the most important tournaments of his life—if he could think of any other reason why the ball might have moved a fraction of an inch. According to Hall, Johnson did not give a definitive answer, which, given the circumstances, was not surprising. However, it is worth noting that the greens have been mowed, pressed, and dried to a fine sheen, and a ball that might not otherwise move could very well move on Oakmont's slick greens.

Three former World No. 1s took to Twitter to scorch the USGA for its decisionmaking:

Soon after the officials spoke with Johnson, Shane Lowry drew within one stroke ... or perhaps he was even. No one would know until the end of the round.
Johnson, of course, lost a chance at a playoff in the 2010 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits when a rules committee determined that Johnson had grounded his club on the 18th hole in a poorly-marked bunker. He missed out on a playoff by a single stroke.

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