Monday, August 16, 2010

8-16-10: The Dustin Johnson Incident and the Role of Officials

I feel sorry for Dustin Johnson. The guy played his heart out, and came up short in the end. The professional golfer, known more recently for a major meltdown than anything else, was in the hunt yesterday during the final round of the PGA Championship, hitting a great chip on the 18th to force a playoff. He was then informed that he'd committed a rules violation before his second shot on the 18th, grounding his club head before striking the ball. The two stroke penalty cost him the playoff.

I heard a few different takes on the incident. Most people feel sorry for Johnson, as they should, but a few called out the rules official for not notifying Johnson beforehand, as a heads-up. I disagree with that particular viewpoint. I think the rules official did precisely what was expected of him: he notified Johnson of a rules infraction. Now, it wasn't an obvious infraction, as a lot of people didn't even know that the ball was sitting in a sand trap (the course had an over abundance of sand traps to begin with) as it was quite a ways from the fairway. Nevertheless, Johnson fessed up and took the penalty.

Should the rules official have warned Johnson beforehand? Johnson did not think to ask for a ruling on whether the ball was sitting in a hazard, which would have been a fair question, because it simply didn't cross his mind. Many golfers would likely have made the same assumption. But you can't expect the rules official to warn Johnson. Golf isn't known as a sport that requires a lot of rule decisions. It's so rare to see the officials on camera that many viewers forget they are there. And they're far from omnipresent, as most players go through entire rounds without a rules official tagging along. Golf is very different than basketball or baseball or hockey in that it's largely an issue of self-policing. Players are expected to call infractions on themselves or their playing partners. No other game with officials is like that. They're simply rules officials, not referees.

It's unfortunate that Johnson lost out on what might be a career opportunity to win a major championship. But it's his fault for not knowing the rule, or not asking. It's tough.

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