The USGA’s major blunder

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The USGA’s major blunder

June 20, 2016 -

During the final round of the U.S. Open, the wheels came off. No, not Shane Lowry’s 6 over par final round or Lee Westwood’s +10. In the middle of an exciting final round, the wheels came off for the entity that runs the tournament, the United States Golf Association. They made one of the worst blunders possible from a governing sports body in the middle of a major event. In case you missed it, here’s a short summary:

Standing over his ball on the 5th green, Dustin Johnson gave his putter a few practice swings, like a basketball player dribbling a few times before a free throw. Right before he “addressed” the ball (lining up his putter directly behind the ball) the ball ever-so-slightly moved. If you watch the reply, it’s almost impossible to decipher the move unless you slow the camera down and zoom in to the point where the image becomes grainy. Immediately, Johnson backed away from the ball and motioned for the hole’s official to come over. After conferring with Johnson, the official deemed that no mistake had been made, and let Johnson play on.
A few holes later, however, word came from the broadcast that the USGA had notified Johnson and told him that they would be reviewing the incident after the round was over to determine whether or not to assess a one stroke penalty. The chaos that ensued threatened to overshadow the tournament itself, until Johnson clinched the victory with a final hole birdie.

Current and former players weighed in on Twitter, decrying the USGA for delaying such an important decision. It was the kind of kerfuffle that is rare when it comes to rules situations in sports: everybody was against the USGA. The average fan watching the game all the way up to last year’s winner, Jordan Spieth, could tell that the USGA had made a giant mistake. Here are three ways they erred along with a few leadership lessons.

Mistake 1: Lack of Common Sense

Golf is a game of myriad rules, and the difficulty in following and understanding them is what keeps many away from the game. All sports fans know that certain plays will be reviewed, and they will put up with a short delay while the replay booth sorts things out. The basic premise is that you get a decision one way or the other and can move on with the game. By delaying their final decision until after the round, the USGA caste a massive cloud of uncertainty over the players, fans, and commentators. Nobody could definitively say what the leaderboard was with a possible one-stroke penalty looming. The USGA should have had the common sense to make a ruling and let the tournament continue. As a leader, you have to have the discernment to know when you can deliberate about a decision and when you simply need to make a ruling.

Mistake 2: Hypocrisy

As many commentators pointed out on Twitter, the USGA was hypocritical because they were the ones ultimately responsible for creating greens that were cut so short that a ball could easily move without being touched. For the entire buildup to the tournament, the story was about how hard the course would be, and how the USGA had again created a brutally tough course. Should it have surprised them, then, when balls seemed to move without players hitting them? They created the conditions for this kind of incident to occur, but then were not able to handle the consequences. This is in essence like a company encouraging its employees to take more time off to improve their health and overall well-being, but when people start asking off, the HR department is not able to give a definitive answer as to what constitutes a day off. The leadership lesson is to beware of the conditions you create as a leader when it comes to your decisions. Be ready to deal with the ramifications by thinking through possible outcomes ahead of time.

Mistake 3: The Explanation

The USGA trotted out an official to the Fox broadcast to answer a few questions about the decision during the middle of the round. The official proceeded to offer a winding, counterintuitive, confusing, ambiguous answer. Instead of smoothing things over, the explanation simply infuriated people more. In an age of instant reply in every sport, why did they need to wait to review the situation until after the round? Instead of clarifying things, the official, a rules expert, simply sounded like a lawyer trying to explain probable cause. As a leader, be sure that when you communicate difficult decisions, you communicate clearly. Less is often more. Take time to think about how your message might come across or how it might be criticized. Is there any way you could be clearer?

Fortunately, Dustin Johnson kept this debacle from taking precedence over the tournament by winning the tournament with several strokes to spare. In leadership, though, you cannot rely on someone else to bail out your errors. As Winston Churchill is attributed to have said: “All men make mistakes, but only wise men learn from their mistakes.”

Our leadership has to tell a better, more comprehensive story. We need to communicate at both levels. The Christian story of creation, fall, and redemption through Jesus involves people in a project that is not only bigger than themselves, but that also endures beyond their time on earth. That is the kind of influence that speaks to the totality of the human heart, showing that the problem is human sin and the solution is Jesus. All our leadership is in response to that simple, yet profoundly comprehensive story of redemption.

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