Sports officials always are unpopular— it comes with the territory.
Umps and refs are booed wherever they go, their adverse-to-the-home-crowd decisions remembered, their favorable ones forgotten. Ditto the $2,000-suit stuffers who run our professional leagues. David Stern helped build the National Basketball Association from a cottage industry to a world force during his 30-year tenure as commissioner (1984-2014), but he’ll always be reviled in Phoenix because he enforced a rule against Suns’ bench players joining an on-court fight during a 2007 playoff game.
Roger Goodell gets the raspberry every time he steps to the podium to announce a choice in the first round of the National Football League draft. Why? Because he’s Roger Goodell, for one thing, but also because almost every ruling he makes displeases someone. As Abraham Lincoln once put it, every time he filled a job he created a dozen enemies and one ingrate.
But sports officials rarely go out of their way to court public enmity, which is why the flap that arose during the recent U.S. Open golf tournament was exceptional. Dustin Johnson, who would go on to win the tournament, was on the fifth green of the final round when an official detected his ball moving as he was addressing it. The man discussed the matter with the golfer, who denied responsibility. The official ruled no foul and play continued.
Seven holes later, though, another, higher official told Johnson the matter had been reviewed and that a one-stroke penalty might (repeat, might) be levied against him. Johnson and the rest of the field (and the viewing audiences at the course and at home) completed their rounds not knowing how the issue would be resolved. In the end the penalty was assessed but Johnson got everyone off the hook by winning by more than a stroke, making the matter moot trophywise
Several points should here be made. One is that the ball movement involved was so slight that it took me several slo-mo TV replays to detect it. Another was that the movement was backward and, thus, gave the golfer no advantage. Another was that there was no evidence that Johnson either touched the ball with his putter or grounded the club so as to cause the movement; it wasn’t like he kicked his ball out of the rough while no one was looking. But for such a nit the most august of our national golfing events was thrown into disarray.
The episode is understandable only when one realizes that the sport involved was golf, whose rules book makes the New York City phone book look small, and that the tournament in question was held under the auspices of the U.S. Golf Association, which exists to fill that book. The USGA is staffed largely by country-club types for whom golf is an avocation, and nits is what it does.
For reasons rooted in antiquity the USGA also runs the annual U.S. Opens for the men, women and seniors, and the national and regional amateur events. The rest of the golf we see, also mostly “open” tournaments (open to amateurs, that is), is run by the Professional Golf Association (PGA) on the men’s side and the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) on the women’s. These are business organizations operated by, and for, the professional golfers themselves. That arrangement, by the way, is unlike that of our professional team sports, which are owned by, uh, owners, and where the players are employees. Just sayin’.
It is axiomatic that no officials are more officious than volunteers, and the USGA exemplifies that point perfectly. Golf is an outdoor game, played on large acreages open to the elements, so the rulings the group makes must account for many situations. But more than occasionally those rulings are counter-intuitive, to say the least.
Say, for instance, that your ball comes to rest in a bunker right behind a half-eaten pear that someone has carelessly discarded. Can the pear be removed without penalty? Nope, says the rules book. It’s a “natural object” and, thus, is part of the hazard. I’m not making this up.
Self-importance is another USGA trait. Every other golf tournament on the planet has long settled end-of-regulation, first-place ties with immediate playoffs of one or a few holes, but not U.S. Opens. If their 72 holes end with players deadlocked a next-day, 18-hole playoff is ordained. The tournaments are attended by a small army of auxiliaries, including the news corps, TV crews and technicians and the hundreds of people who provide on-course staffing, many of whom come from outside the tourney area. These folks must rebook their plane reservations and hotels and rearrange their work schedules to accommodate the USGA’s notion of fairness.
Their sole consolation is that it used to be worse: until 1931 the group required a next-day, 36-hole playoff to resolve first-place ties. That year Murphy’s Law kicked in and George Von Elm and Billy Burke again tied after the extra 36. They were sent out the next day to play another 36, with Burke eventually winning. I’m not making that up, either.
After ‘31 the playoff was reduced to 18 holes but only with the provision that ties after that required 18 more holes. The additional 18 wasn’t lifted until the 1950s, when sudden-death after 90 holes finally was introduced. Some blue-blazer types still are tut-tutting about that, no doubt.