On USGA Rules Informement

In the past two U.S. Opens (the Men's and Women's 2016 U.S. Open) there have been high-publicity rules situations. The first was Dustin Johnson's, the second was Anna Nordqvist's. In both cases, the call was correct – there was a rules violation. What was bad was how the players were informed of it.

In Nordqvist's case, her club knocked over a granule of sand before she took her backswing on the 16th hole (in a playoff with Bethany Brittany Lang), a fact which was caught on high-definition video. They informed her on the 18th hole, after she'd played her approach shot, but before Lang had. If she'd been told before, she might have played a riskier line, in the hope to set up a short birdie putt while Lang makes some mistake. But because Lang got told before she hit her approach, Lang got to play it safe, and all Nordqvist could hope for was that Lang would 3-putt and that she'd drain a long birdie putt. That was unfair in favor of Lang. They should have informed the players before both had hit their shots, or after, so that they both operated with equal misinformation.

In Johnson's case, he caused his ball to move by putting his putter on the ground next to it a few seconds before, while taking his practice strokes. The ball then moved when Johnson's putter was behind the ball, clearly not touching the ball or the ground. Thus the rules official with the group ruled (incorrectly) that Johnson had not caused the ball to move. Then, later, when he was on the 12th hole, the committee informed him and other players that they would be reviewing the video at the end of the round, and make a ruling.

The problem here is that Johnson has much more information about what's going to happen than other players. He knew what the situation was and could more reliably predict than other players that he would get a stroke penalty. This gives him information that he can use to his advantage, in deciding how to trade off expected value for variance in the shots he chooses to play. That they didn't give a straight ruling up-front was unfair to other players.

In order to improve rulings in Johnson's case, the committee could use an internet communication device to bring the video to the player on the course and review the situation on-the-spot. In Nordqvist's case, where it was a playoff, they just need to inform the players at a more equitable time.

The way these rulings were handled would have been fine if it were not the final round, or a playoff. Strategic decisions in a golf tournament come down to choosing the probability distribution of your score, trading a better expected value in exchange for higher variance. The decision about how to play doesn't change much, on a stoke-by-stroke basis, until you near the end of the tournament.

- Sam

(posted July 11 '16)