Just when we were starting to forget the incompetence of the USGA in causing the Dustin Johnson fiasco at the men’s U.S. Open, the blue-blazer boys provided an unforgettable reminder of it, by ruining the women’s U.S. Open. As in the men’s Open, the USGA took way too long to make the call on an alleged rules-violation, and then compounded their error by botching the timing of the notifications to the players.
The infraction in the women’s Open, a grounding of her club in a bunker by Anna Nordqvist (for which the penalty is 2 strokes), occurred during the three-hole playoff, midway through the second of the three playoff holes (#17). But the USGA did not make its decision on the penalty until later. The players were not notified of the infraction until each had hit her second shot on the third playoff hole (the par-5 18th). Sounds innocent enough, fair and equal, but the timing of the notifications had a decidedly unfair and unequal impact upon the players.
The timing meant that the penalized player, Ms. Nordqvist, who has sufficient length to have reached the 18th green in two, had to play her second shot, had to make her critical strategic decision – to go for broke or lay-up – before she knew the pertinent facts, before she knew that reaching the green in two had become the only possible way for her to avoid defeat. She elected to lay-up, which would have been a prudent strategy had she not sustained the penalty but certainly would not have been her strategy had she been aware of having been penalized. By laying-up, Ms. Nordqvist was unwittingly forfeiting her only opportunity to overcome the deficit that had resulted from the penalty. On the other hand, her opponent, Ms. Lang, had neither the ball position nor the power to try to reach the green in two, so her ignorance of the real score did not affect her decision to lay-up on her second shot. In fact, Ms. Lang, by being told of the penalty before having to play her third shot, was allowed to forget about pin-seeking and hit a super-safe approach shot that would allow her to win with even a bogey. In effect, the USGA handed the tournament to Ms. Nordqvist.
Clearly, the USGA botched the whole thing. Had they made a prompt decision, the players could have re-set their strategies much earlier, perhaps as early as the middle of the second playoff hole, taking into account the penalty. But even if it had been impossible to make the call that early, they still owed it to the players (especially Ms. Nordqvist) to make the call at a good time, one that minimized any prejudice based upon the length of the delay. In other words, make the call before the tee shots on 18, or make it after the tee shots but before the second shots, or wait until both players were done with the three holes. The single worst way to notify the players was to announce the call at a time when the announcement would harm one player while helping the other. In their clumsiness, the USGA gave an unfair advantage to Ms. Lang, tainting her accomplishment.
Is there any reason why Major League Baseball and NFL Football are able to review the videos and make the call within no more than a few minutes, while pro golf takes forever? Granted, some golf violations are not spotted until later, but why not a mandated time limit on reviews, even a limit on the time within which an infraction can be called? Football and baseball have wisely decided that it is more important to maintain the pace of play and keep everyone up-to-date on controversial calls, than it is that the calls always be perfect. Somehow, they find the money to deploy enough officials and sufficient technology to minimize their mistakes. Would that golf were as well-run as baseball and football.