In all the controversy over the slight rotation of Dustin Johnson’s ball during the last round of this year’s U.S. Open, the complaints have been about how the USGA officials handled the possible rule infraction, not whether the rule itself was stupid. It seemed rather clear to me that when the ball, sitting on the fifth green, moved one dimple after he grounded his putter beside it, his action was the proximate cause and, under the applicable rule, he had to take a penalty stroke. The official on the spot was wrong to tell him otherwise, although I don’t blame him for not thinking quickly enough in the pressure of that situation. Once the officials decided a video review was necessary, they clearly had to tell the player and ask him if he could think of any reason the ball had moved. Allowing for all due process, it’s easy to see that it would take another couple of holes to reach a determination, which means Johnson – and all the field still on the course – should have been advised of the penalty stroke no later than Johnson’s 14th hole. That’s still a problem, but not as bad as waiting for the round’s conclusion, as occurred.
But no one is asking, why is there such a rule in the first place? Why penalize a player for conduct that in no way helps him? The ball was further from the cup after it moved – how is that a benefit? If there is no advantage gained, why penalize? More appropriately, the rule could be written that if any act of the player not otherwise addressed in the rules has the result of advancing the ball, the player shall be penalized a stroke.
The silly strictness of golf rules contributes to the elite nature of the game. The beginner, even the average player (like myself), doesn’t know all the rules and is made to feel like he’s not quite in the club. Of course, the average player (like myself) willfully ignores even some of the rules he does know. If your club accidentally touches the ball before you strike it, that’s a penalty. If your club accidentally touches the sand before your bunker shot, that’s a penalty. Neither gives you an unfair advantage over your opponent or the course. There are even more arcane penalties, such as two strokes if your shot bounces back and hits you, even though this could never be an intentional result of cheating, nor is it appropriate compensation for any yardage saved by your body being in the way.
Golf is tough enough as it is. Why have rules that serve no purpose but make it harder?