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The USGA Is in Need of a Sports Czar

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On the latest ShackHouse podcast, Geoff Shackelford and Joe House address the Dustin Johnson debacle at the U.S. Open. Read a transcript of their conversation below, and listen to the entire episode here. This transcript has been lightly edited and condensed.

Geoff Shackelford: I’m curious what your big-picture take [was] watching that whole fiasco starting at the fifth hole, followed by Dustin Johnson later being informed that they would be reviewing his putt after the round.

Joe House: I was blessedly home on my couch watching the final round. There are many, many, many things about the way it went down that the whole golf world commentariat and Twitterati will cover. The thing that jumps out at me is: With an organization whose motto right now is “#growthegame,” who do they think they are serving by interjecting this into their premier event, the one time a year when all eyes are on them? Who do they think they’re serving by interjecting all of this craziness into the entertainment, which is really, at the end of the day, what this is about?

They have a TV deal with Fox. Fox is paying them money. Lots and lots and lots of money for the entertainment value. I’m a dude sitting on my couch on Sunday … and we can’t make any sense out of what they’re doing. We don’t really understand the rule and nobody can really articulate it that well. We don’t really understand the application of that rule. We certainly don’t understand the enforcement of the rule. And nobody gets the idea of how you have a referee there in the moment, [he makes] a judgment, and walks away. Then somebody else can come back later — much later, an hour and a half later, seven holes later — and say, “Hey, we think whatever ruling was judged and assessed back then, an hour and a half ago — we’re going to have to take another look at that.” It doesn’t make any sense to a sports-viewing public, to people at large that would be sitting on their couch Sunday, like I was, consuming the broadcast. So that’s one of the [one] million takes out there.

[Tell me] a little bit about what was going on in your world while you watched it.

G.S.: Ultimately, there’s a big problem with [the USGA] in that this is [its] one week a year that they’re in the spotlight, and [its] old executive director, Frank Hannigan, always warned that they had a need to be loved. Any time they wanted to be loved, that was going to get them in trouble. They’ve gone down a bit of a rat hole in a number of ways.

One of them is this “grow the game” idea. They really have become a “grow the game” organization, and that can lead you into trouble when you get in a situation like this because they’re sticklers for the rules. They have these unbelievably absurd rules of golf. The decisions are unbelievable. They’re so snooty about people who don’t know the rules, and they put down players when they don’t know the rules. “It’s your job as players to know the rules.” Well, the decisions book is two and a half, three inches thick. Even a lawyer who’s argued before the Supreme Court came to the organization, became the president, and said, “You’ve got to simplify these things. These are ridiculous.” This guy is like a legal genius, and he’s looking at [this rulebook] like, “You’ve gotta be kidding me.”

[The USGA has] one week a year where they get to be in charge and they inevitably do something to screw it up. Had this impacted Dustin in any way, golf was done. The black eye on golf for the next 10 years — [it] would have been insurmountable had he lost this tournament, so he saved their rear end. Video reviews are not unusual, but they took it a step further. They have this problem, House, where they don’t want intent to ever be part of these rules discussions, [but] it has to be sometimes. They have a referee on site. He saw it; he was good with it. The rules say that’s the final word, and they chose to overrule part of his decision.

It’s mind-boggling to me that they wheeled this whole thing out. They did it on television. They didn’t do it well. They’re tone-deaf, generally. I don’t think they have any idea what people were saying out there [on the course]. In the press center, it was stunning what people were saying. Writers were getting mad, and that had nothing to do with their travel schedule. They just couldn’t believe that they would interject themselves in the tournament this way.

J.H.: Well, that’s precisely the point. We as sports fans, sports consumers, loathe it. Loathe isn’t even strong enough. When the referees interject themselves into outcomes and produce what we, the viewing public, regard as unjust results — this particular showdown that happened on the fifth green emphasizes all the wrong things that people think about golf: All of that elitism, all of that absurd, inscrutable application of rules. Tens of thousands of folks like me who play the game and enjoy the game, these rules don’t work for any of us. They don’t make sense to any of us.

Bill Simmons has long been pining for a sports czar, someone who could come in in any situation and apply a quick dose of common sense. Who can do that for the USGA? They need a commissioner of common sense to join that outfit just to help them understand. You said it perfectly. Tone-deaf. To let them understand what they’re walking themselves into with this mess.