By Ronn Torossian, CEO, 5W PR
The 116th U.S. Open held in Oakmont, Pennsylvania between June 16-19, saw one big problem, though ultimately it didn’t change the outcome. Here’s what happened. During the third round on the fifth green, Dustin Johnson caused his ball to move by what the USGA claimed. According to the USGA rules, that’s a one stroke penalty and undoubtedly is “fined” at the discretion of someone – but the problem was, the penalty didn’t get assessed until after the fourth round.
At the fifth green when the movement happened, Johnson was preparing for his putt, stepped back and saw the ball had moved slightly. Johnson notified the officials at that time. Johnson explained, “I called him over and told him what happened. Lee (Westwood) was standing right there. He saw it. So we both agreed that I didn’t cause the ball to move. So I just played on from there with no penalty.” Wrong! The correct statement is, … no immediate penalty.
As our friend the golf fan Elie Hirschfeld pointed out, according to the most current rule enacted just this year, Rule 18-2 … “If a player or caddie causes a ball to move that’s at rest, the player incurs a one-stroke penalty.” The question becomes whether Johnson or something else caused the incremental movement. Johnson felt he was not the cause.
However, none of that created the PR problems following the conclusion of the tournament. That came when the tournament had already ended, Johnson won by a comfortable margin, and then the golf club fell, the USGA decided they had to assess the one stroke penalty against him. And that’s when the PR nightmare began. Players, fans, sportscasters, just about everyone felt it shouldn’t have happened, and if it was going to happen, it should have done so much earlier.
Mike Davis, in speaking for the USGA apologized and agreed, the ruling should have happened sooner. It’s a new/adjusted ruling and deciding how to implement it when something happened showed some flaws in the wording of the rule, but it’s the USGA’s duty to make sure the rulings are enforced and that one player doesn’t receive special treatment over another. Of note, Davis’ apology was for the timing, not for the enforcement.
Ultimately, what is true – the USGA apologized for the delay and are moving on. Dustin Johnson still won the trophy for the tournament, and as Michael Bamberger, Sports Illustrated senior writer, said, “The USGA is not in the public relations business. Its purpose is to stage a championship and assure that the rules, which it tries constantly to improve, are applied fairly to all.”
Though Bamberger makes some good points, in this social media-driven, immediate response world, we are all in the business of PR to some degree. And the bigger the organization or event, the more PR becomes a necessity.