There’s so much happening in the world of sport, around issues that I care very much about and have been writing and talking about for some time, that it’s hard to know where to start. The IAAF, WADA, the IOC, UCI, FIFA … they continue to stumble on in their haze of poor governance practices making generally poor decisions and doing nothing to serve their stakeholders.
Most recently, I wrote about whether sport deserves autonomy. It’s something I and others are actively working on so more on that later.
But something struck me this week from the world of golf that I wanted to share with you.
You may be aware that American golfer Dustin Johnson won the US Open earlier this week. It was a remarkable win for two reasons.
The first is the one that has everyone talking. His ball ‘moved’ on the fifth green, something that results in a stroke penalty. When it happened, Dustin called the match official who was satisfied with Dustin’s explanation that he had not addressed the putt by grounding his club. Dustin’s playing partner, Lee Westwood, agreed. Dustin was told that he wouldn’t face a penalty. However, at the twelfth tee, another USGA official informed him that they were, in effect, second-guessing the previous decision of their own official with a review, but their decision would not be known until the end of the round!
As this report makes clear, the flip-flopping of the US Golf Association (USGA) was roundly criticised by Dustin’s fellow golf professionals including Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth and Ernie Els. After all, what other sport would wait until the end of the game to make a ruling?
Dustin then had to play out the remaining six holes not knowing if he was penalised or not. Likewise, those nipping at his heels did not know. In the end, the USGA’s inability to make a decision in an appropriate timeframe was spared further condemnation because Dustin Johnson finished five under par, four shots clear. He was eventually penalised by the USPGA which means he finished four under par, three shots clear.
Golfing experts say the application of the relevant rule (Rule 18.2) needs to be sorted-out because it’s nothing more than a ‘judgement call’ that is subjective and also subject to human frailty. For example, earlier in the same tournament, French man Romain Wattel had a similar experience but the USGA determined his actions didn’t cause the ball to move. Major decisions affecting the outcome of a tournament should not be taken in a club house behind closed doors after the event, but when it happens so everyone knows about it.
But what struck me about this is how the USGA treated their player.
I’m not ‘in’ to golf in a big way but I’m enough of a sports fanatic to admire the values that golf brings to sport. Discipline, self-regulation, integrity, respect for the rules. It helps set golf apart from other sports. A bit like the SKINS brand!
When a professional golfer says he or she did not address the ball, I believe them. It’s ingrained into the culture of the sport that golfers are duty-bound to honour player integrity and to protect the rest of the field from rules breaches. Dustin’s fellow competitors believed him also judging by their reaction on social media, as did television commentators.
Shame on USGA for not doing the same and appreciating the values of their sport.
It reminded me of a conversation I had with Lance Armstrong. We were sitting in a bar in Aspen a few years ago. Lance was talking passionately and eloquently about his love for golf. I asked him why he liked it so much. He told me it was because of its self-policing nature and lack of culture of cheating.
It was almost an out-of-body experience to be listening to the man who probably most represents the concept of ‘cheating’ (personally I see him as a doper as opposed to a cheater but that’s a story for another day) in sport to comment on how he would never ever dream of breaking the golfing code. I believed him. I understood that the culture within cycling that Lance had grown-up in and was part of was very different from the culture within golf. Because of that culture, behaviour that was acceptable in one environment was total anathema in another.
There is another aspect to Dustin Johnson’s win that I want to touch on. Two years ago, Dustin took voluntary leave from the professional golf tour to deal with “personal challenges”. These challenges were revealed as related to his use of recreational drugs.
The fact that he has apparently dealt with those challenges, come back, regained the long-hitting, powerful form for which he’s known and shrugged off “amateur hour” officialdom (to quote former SKINS golfer Rory McIlroy) to win the US Open is testament to his resilience, ability and strength of will.
As Dustin said when he was informed of the USGA’s intervention at the twelfth tee: “Just focus on this next shot. I tried to do that from there, all the way to the house. It was just me and the golf course.”