US Open 2017

Golf: USGA hope players take the spotlight

World No. 1 Dustin Johnson hitting a shot during a practice round at Erin Hills. Uncertainty over a possible penalty stroke lingered over the American at last year's US Open, putting the status of the leaderboard in doubt before he pulled away for an
World No. 1 Dustin Johnson hitting a shot during a practice round at Erin Hills. Uncertainty over a possible penalty stroke lingered over the American at last year's US Open, putting the status of the leaderboard in doubt before he pulled away for an emphatic victory for his maiden Major.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

US Open organisers seek to avoid drawing controversy after last year's rules farce

ERIN HILLS (Wisconsin) • Those in positions of authority may be soft targets for vociferous abuse but nobody has matched the United States Golf Association's (USGA) fuelling of such fires.

The rules farce that overshadowed Dustin Johnson's maiden Major win at last year's US Open at Oakmont would have been damaging enough for the USGA had it arrived in isolation.

Twelve months earlier, the world's best players erupted in fury regarding the dreadful condition of greens at Chambers Bay.

Golf's governing body in the US was embroiled in further chaos in April as a women's Major descended into farce after a ruling based on contact from a television viewer 24 hours earlier.

And there was more. At the conclusion of last year's US Women's Open, the USGA's president, Diana Murphy, continued a propensity for erratic speech-making by continually calling the winner by the wrong name.

In their traditional eve of tournament address at this year's US Open, the USGA's leading lights were not 100 per cent convincing over whether a repeat of the Johnson scenario will be avoided.

There has, at least, been an admission that things went badly wrong in Pennsylvania and a move to improve on archaic processes.

Changes at Erin Hills include reliance on a central group of rules officials headed by chief referee Thomas Pagel, who is empowered to make rulings, use of on-course video replay stations and adoption of local rules offering a more common-sense approach to inadvertent ball movement on the greens.

Under the new protocols, Johnson would not be subject to a penalty as he had at Oakmont when his ball moved slightly before he addressed his putt on the fifth green of the final round. He would just re-mark his ball and play on.

John Bodenhamer, the USGA senior managing director of championships and governance, said another change was dispensing with having a referee walk with each group.

Instead, referees will be assigned two or three holes to officiate "so they can familiarise themselves with every aspect and nuance of those couple of holes".

"Something like the last couple of years affects our whole organisation," Mike Davis, the USGA's executive director, admitted. "Any time your competency comes into question, that affects the people who are dealing with the history of the game and helping to grow the game.

"Of course, we want to avoid these things but sometimes things happen."

"Our main goal is for this week to be about the players and their journey to the final round," Bodenhamer added: "They're the story of this championship."

Specific issues at Erin Hills are partly within the USGA's control and partly not. A huge property will inevitably lead to tediously long rounds. The official yardage layout at Erin Hills is listed at 7,741 yards - the longest course in Major history.

The USGA slashed back areas of thick fescue rough earlier this week but denied that was a response to widespread complaints from players.

"It is not as if we don't listen to feedback from players," Davis said.

"But in this case, it had absolutely zero to do with what the players were saying. We look at some spots and said, simply, 'This is not going to play properly'."

The great unknown comes in the form of weather, which is infamously changeable at this time of year in the Midwest.

What is known however is that the tournament lost one of its most familiar faces yesterday when Phil Mickelson withdrew so he could attend his daughter's high school graduation.

THE GUARDIAN, REUTERS

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 16, 2017, with the headline 'USGA hope players take the spotlight'. Print Edition | Subscribe