On the USGA, the Rules of Golf and HD cameras
On Sunday at CordeValle, Brittany (not Bethany) Lang won the U.S. Women’s Open, defeating Anna Nordqvist in a three-hole playoff. It’s Lang’s second career win on the LPGA Tour and her first major, but unfortunately, her win is being overshadowed by another USGA rules issue just a few weeks after Dustin Johnson was penalized at Oakmont.
In case you missed it, Lang and Nordqvist were tied after 72 holes and unlike the men’s event, the women do not play eighteen holes on Monday to break the tie. Since 2007, they have used an aggregate three-hole format and after the first two holes, Lang and Nordqvist were tied going to the par-5 18th…except that they weren’t tied. After both players found the right rough with their drives, Fox showed their viewers some footage of the previous hole where Nordqvist played her second shot from the fairway bunker. Just before taking the club back, Nordqvist grounded her 5-iron in the bunker, knocking loose a few grains of sand. That is a two shot penalty.
First off, we can argue all we want about the ridiculousness of the Rules of Golf, but like it or not, this was a clear penalty. Unlike Johnson at Oakmont, which the USGA couldn’t have got any more wrong, the action by Nordqvist was absolutely against the rules, and the right call was made to penalize her two strokes. Now, did Nordqvist ground her club intentionally? Did she know that she did it? Absolutely not. It’s an unfortunate break and an awful way to have a playoff end, particularly one where a major championship is on the line, but it’s impossible to find fault with the ruling on the part of the USGA.
There was also some talk on Twitter while it was going on about whether or not the grounding helped Nordqvist, or if the rules should be more flexible with judging intent from a player when situations like this occur, and honestly, as much as I would like to blow up the Rules of Golf and start over, asking officials to judge intent is pretty much impossible. Imagine a situation where a player commits a penalty just like Nordqvist did on Sunday where it’s completely by accident, and someone at the USGA decides that they actually did it on purpose. If you think that Johnson at Oakmont was the nightmare scenario, just imagine that explanation from the rules official that in their mind, the player intentionally grounded their club in the bunker to gain an advantage and the argument that would ensue from the penalized player. It may make for great TV, but that’s about all it does.
Now, the USGA didn’t get it all right, because of course they didn’t. After Oakmont, the chief complaint was that they didn’t make a ruling right away, making it unfair to the players involved who were trying to win a golf tournament. With that in mind, the USGA reviewed the video and made a decision before Lang and Nordqvist finished their third playoff hole. However, they told Nordqvist of the penalty after she hit her third shot into the par-5 18th, and before Lang hit her approach. This essentially gave Lang an even bigger advantage because it allowed her to take an extra club to avoid the water guarding the green, and play a safe shot away from the flag. Once Nordqvist had played her third, the fair way to handle things would be to wait until Lang played her third and then let her know as she was walking up to the green. I understand how after getting badly skewered at Oakmont that the USGA wanted to get the information out as quickly as possible, but if the television viewers knew after both players teed off on 18, why weren’t the players notified earlier than their third shots?
This is what I don’t understand. The USGA didn’t have a close up view of the penalty, but Fox did? How is that possible? It felt so wrong that anyone watching the tournament on television knew about the penalty fifteen minutes before Nordqvist and Lang did, and apparently, those viewers also knew about the penalty before anyone at the USGA could confirm it on their end. This is unacceptable and needs to serve as a lesson to not only the USGA, but any of the other governing bodies that put on tournaments. The players need to know where they stand at all times, and if that means letting the walking official know and having them stop play, that’s better than the alternative of not knowing where you are when you’re trying to win a tournament.
What’s less certain to me is how you go about handling the reporting of these incidents. Letting people call in rules infractions is near the top of my list of biggest problems with the game, but that’s not what happened here. According to the broadcast, it was a Fox cameraman who thought they saw the penalty, and they reported it to the production truck who went back to look at it. They decided it was worth showing, and then they put it on the air. Essentially, it equates to the same thing though and it comes back to a larger issue of how tournaments are televised in 2016.
We see every shot of the best players early in the week and then as the weekend comes along, the broadcast focuses on the players at the top of the leaderboard and the big names. It’s a tried and true formula, but what it also does is it puts those players under a microscope as it relates to rules violations that the rest of the field just doesn’t face. In a lot of cases, that wouldn’t mean much, but it certainly did on Sunday with Nordqvist, especially considering that she had no idea that it happened and the only way that it was caught was with an HD camera. It’s very possible that another player did the exact same thing during the week but if the camera wasn’t on them at the time, it never would have been caught. Hypothetically, what if Lang had done the same thing in the first round? If she was assessed a two shot penalty, there never would have been a playoff and Nordqvist would be the one with a major win.
Like I said, I don’t know how you go about fixing it because while penalties should be assessed for infractions, certain players are more at risk than others simply because the technology has made that the case. Enforcing rules violations is about protecting the field and making sure that everyone is on the same page, but when certain players are more likely to be subjected to the decision, the field is anything but protected.
This was just a scenario where everything was done by the book and it still felt kinda wrong, and that’s something that is very difficult to fix.