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What does Johnson’s US Open treatment have to teach regulators?

Dustin Johnson managed a magnificent win at Oakmont Country Club, Pennsylvania to win the US Open this weekend. As one of golf’s four majors this should be a story concentrating, alone, on the success of the immensely talented player from South Carolina. But the United States Golf Association (USGA), responsible for oversight of this competition, reduced the event to a farce and there are lessons to be learned for anyone involved in the design and delivery of regulatory process.

To summarise the events that led to the untidy finish to this flagship event, a rules official informed Johnson that he would not receive a penalty stroke after the ball moved when he made to address a putt on the 5th green. On the 12th tee, Johnson was then told that he might face a penalty and a decision would be made at the end of his round. This meant that the player had to complete his final six holes without knowing whether the ruling and subsequent penalty would take place or not. Equally, those hoping to compete with Johnson and keeping an eye on the leaderboard, were also completely in the dark with regard to the score they had to post, as Johnson’s would be subject to a post competition review.

It is testament to Johnson that when he was subsequently penalised a stroke he had ignored the brouhaha and played well enough to still win by three shots. My guess is that the senior USGA figures heaved a massive sigh of relief as they dodged further embarrassment for their awkward and ill-timed intervention. So what are the lessons for regulators?

1. Rule clarity

Last week I was working with a cross section of regulators in the Cayman Islands and one of the key messages shared was the need for absolute clarity in the drafting of regulations. Those being regulated deserve to know what compliance looks like, and what non compliance looks like. In Johnson’s case he was preparing for a three-foot par putt and grounded his putter to the side of the ball as part of his normal routine, then started to put his putter behind the ball, without touching the ground, when the ball moved by a tiny margin backward. Rule ambiguity around when a player is deemed to have addressed the ball seems to have contributed to the confusion in this case.

This is not the first time Johnson has been punished by a lack of clarity. In 2012 at the end of the PGA Championship, Johnson grounded his club in a poorly-defined waste bunker. The subsequent penalty cost Johnson a spot in the playoff for the title. In this regulation the rule is clear but the areas of the course subject to the rule were not. In regulatory terms it is like having to guess where a low emission zone starts ... or introducing a Dangerous Dogs Act that fails to clearly define what constitutes a dangerous dog!

2. Transparent interpretation of the rules

Jeff Hall, the USGA's managing director of Rules is reported as saying: "It's only fair that we notify Dustin Johnson so that he can adjust his strategy accordingly, and give him an opportunity to see what we saw at the end of the round." How ‘fair’ was it to make Johnson play out the remainder of the final day with an uncertain punishment, or none at all, looming and how was Johnson to adjust his strategy? More importantly, what was Johnson’s own contribution going to be at the subsequent review of the video evidence? In regulatory terms, did he have some right of appeal?

A lack of clear interpretation was further evidenced by USGA’s Mike Davis, who was reported as saying that a four-person rules committee would be required to decide if Johnson should face penalty. "Our best people on the rules ...”.

3. The value of a ‘nudge’

The UK’s Behavioural Insights team (colloquially known as the 'nudge unit') has lessons that the USGA might think about. It has made a virtue of considering EAST when thinking about encouraging a desired behaviour. The E stands for “easy”. In regulatory terms make compliance easy not least by simplifying messages and reducing the hassle factor. The A is for “attractive” i.e. make it attractive to be compliant ... Johnson deserved an unequivocal response after declaring the ball had moved. The S is for “social” because one means we use to determine what is correct is to find out what other people think is correct. And the player’s response to the whole situation, before and after, sets a standard and is probably the one good thing to come out of the entire situation. And finally, the “T” ... timely. A regulatory issue reported immediately deserves a prompt response from the regulator.

4. Be decisive

When potential non compliance is being considered, make a decision firmly and promptly. The USGA achieved neither of these. Having been give an immediate ruling by an on the spot official, Johnson was told seven holes later that the original decision was to be reviewed and then only reviewed after his competition was finished. The consequence was a potentially performance impacting doubt not only for Johnson but also for his fellow competitors. In regulation it should be understood that the result of any ongoing consideration of compliance will be keenly anticipated not only by the immediate party but also by anyone else subject to the regulation and decisions need to be made in a timely fashion.

5. Proportionate and timely sanction

The timeliness of any sanction decision has a huge impact on the way that it is received. Johnson deserved better treatment from the USGA. A prolonged period of uncertainty could, and possibly did, have a big effect on his performance. Possibly only one person can report how much the uncertainty contributed to his bogey on the fourteenth hole after he was told there would be a post match review. Delays in administering a decision can mean a loss of faith in a company whilst the decision is awaited (impacting for example on share price) with consequences potentially far outweighing any eventual regulator action.

6. Value self reporting

One of the best characteristics of this, sometimes maligned, game is that players call on themselves. Here, though the ball moved the slightest fraction and not in his favour, Johnson was immediate in declaring the situation and alerting the rules official. Self-regulation can be extremely valuable, negating the need for limited tax payer resources being allocated to costly inspection and sanction activity. It can be painful when it fails (see the UK’s Press Complaints Commission) but efficient where it works and should certainly be celebrated and rewarded ... unlike the treatment Johnson received after alerting the proper authority.

7. Enhancing respect for authority

A regulator’s actions should always be tested against the impact the action will have on the regulators’ credibility. Clear rules, applied consistently with proportionate sanction for non compliance are just some of the characteristics that a regulator will wish to demonstrate so as to enhance their reputation. The Twitter responses of leading players to the unfolding Johnson debacle were testament to an unravelling of the USGA’s reputation as Sunday progressed. Rory McIlroy’s: "Take that @usga" will have been echoed by many observers as Johnson overcame the situation to win out at the end. And his success speaks very highly of the player and not of the rules, processes and sanctions applied in this instance by the game I have a great deal of affection for. But they did remind us seven useful lessons for all regulators.

Ian Rennie FCIPD, MCMI, is a former regulator and now independent consultant working with regulators around the world. If you are involved in regulation and would like to know more about his work, contact him via

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