By Doug Ferguson
AP Golf Writer
Golf’s governing bodies have responded to Dustin Johnson’s penalty at the U.S. Open by introducing a local rule that will waive the one-shot penalty if a ball moves on the putting green by accident.
The local rule, effective in January, applies only to accidental movement on the putting green of the golf ball and a ball marker.
Johnson was lining up a par putt on the fifth hole of the final round at Oakmont when his ball moved slightly and he backed away. He said he didn’t make it move, but after the USGA studied video and consulted the rule book, he eventually was given a one-shot penalty because it was ruled that his actions caused the ball to move. Even with the penalty, he closed with a 69 and won by three shots.
The local rule was not a reaction to that one incident at Oakmont. Golf’s leading experts have been meeting the last five years on a rules modernization project. Thomas Pagel, the USGA’s senior rules director, said they had determined even before the U.S. Open that the rule for such accidental movement needed to be changed.
The Johnson ruling only sped up the process.
“This has been talked about for quite some time,” Pagel said. “The Dustin Johnson ruling was the last of many uncomfortable rulings we’ve had with balls or ball markers that moved on a putting green. We had identified a solution and language as the broader rules modernization. This motivated us to say it’s in the best interest of the game as opposed to waiting for the next set of revisions.”
The Rules of Golf are revised once every four years, with the next revision due in 2020. Pagel could not say when the entire rules modernization project will be completed, though a rough draft is likely to be released in the spring, followed by a lengthy period of feedback.
For now, any accidental movement of the ball or ball marker on the putting green will require the player to replace it, but without a penalty shot. A local rule is an option for tournaments to use, though the USGA and R&A said it has been welcomed by the major tours worldwide, the PGA of America and Masters.
The local rule already has one fan.
“I think it’s a really good thing for golf,” Johnson said in a text message.
Johnson’s ruling was the most famous, mainly because of how it was carried out. He was notified on the 12th tee that he might face a penalty and that he could review it with officials after the round. That meant Johnson had to play the final seven holes of the U.S. Open without knowing if he would get a penalty shot. It ultimately didn’t matter, though even after his three-shot victory, Johnson did not think he deserved a penalty shot.
Ian Poulter in 2012 at the Dubai World Championship had a 30-foot birdie putt in a playoff. As he went to replace his ball, it fell from his hand and hit the edge of his marker, causing it to flip over. He was given a one-shot penalty and wound up losing to Robert Karlsson, who had a short birdie putt.
Under the local rule, Poulter would not have been penalized.
In another example, Davis Love III had a short par putt on the 17th hole at the 1997 Players Championship when his putter nudged the ball during his practice stroke. Even though his club made contact with the ball, he would not be penalized under the local rule because it would be an accident.
What is an accident?
“Anything that is not intentional,” Pagel said.
He said an intentional act would include intent, such as picking up the ball without marking it.
The local rule applies to 18-2 and 18-3 (ball at rest moved) and 20-1 (lifting and marking). The rules haven’t changed, but the penalty would be waived.
“We still need to figure out what caused the ball to move,” Pagel said. “In those instances, it more likely than not was an accident that caused it to move. We still have to have that discussion. But the discussions are less contentious when there’s no longer a penalty part of that conversation.”