The U.S. Women’s Open returned to Oakmont this year for the first time since 1992, a championship noteworthy for one of the most fortunate rulings in the history of golf. Or, from Juli Inkster’s point of view, one of the most unfortunate rulings.
Patty Sheehan came to the 18th hole needing a birdie to tie Inkster, the two of them having distanced themselves from the field. Sheehan’s tee shot drifted too far to the right, finishing in the deep USGA rough. But it was also in casual water—play had been interrupted earlier by a rainstorm.
Sheehan was allowed by a USGA official to drop the ball in the fairway, from which point she hit a fine 5-iron to 18 feet and made the putt for a birdie on the difficult 18th. In fact, she birdied the last two holes for a 69 to match Inkster—the two began the day tied for the lead—and force a playoff. Sheehan won the 18-hole playoff the next day, 72-74.
Inherently, there’s nothing wrong with a ruling on a casual-water drop that moves a player from rough to fairway. The Rules state that relief comes at the nearest point no nearer to the hole where there is not interference from casual water, with no reference to rough or fairway. It’s perfectly kosher—though you at least have to say it’s very fortunate.
Still, I remember there were a couple of things that bothered me when I watched the situation unfold on television at the time. First, there did not seem to be an extensive effort to determine the nearest point of relief. You would think—especially with the U.S. Open on the line—that the player and official would take great pains to determine the nearest point, which would involve testing stances at various positions to see if there was interference from casual water. But it all seemed to happen quickly, with no consideration of other points of relief (though it’s possible it wasn’t all caught on television).
The second bothersome point was that, as I remember it, the on-course microphone picked up a sloshing sound from Sheehan’s feet as she struck her approach shot. A player must take complete relief from casual water—he or she can not take relief at a point where there is also interference from casual water. If water is visible when a player takes his or her stance, interference exists. That sloshing made me wonder if Sheehan had taken relief at a spot that was still in casual water (to be fair, it’s possible that the water wasn’t visible when taking a stance but only became apparent in the exertion of the swing).
Of course, that’s all casual water under the bridge. The ruling was made by an official and was final. Still, I just don’t think the official took enough care with the decision.
It’s good to remember, though, that the ruling was magnified by the fact that it occurred on the final hole. In the big picture, that’s just one of 72 holes of regulation (and Inkster still had a chance in the playoff.) Sheehan may have gotten a really bad break on another hole and Inkster may have gotten a really good break somewhere along the way, though none of that is remembered—certainly not by Inkster.
Inkster, still going strong at age 50, is playing in the 2010 U.S. Women’s Open at Oakmont. When Colin Dunlap of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette asked Inkster whether she has gotten over the ruling, Inkster admitted she hadn’t, calling it “the worst ruling in the history of golf.”
That 1992 Women’s Open came down to a two-player duel where a loss was going to be tough on either. Inkster had already lost a major in a playoff that year, the Nabisco Dinah Shore. But it would have been even worse for Sheehan, who had finished second three times in the U.S. Women’s Open including losing a nine-stroke lead over the final 27 holes in 1990.
In any case, the ruling didn’t give the title to Sheehan. All it did was make it more possible (she probably wouldn’t have been able to reach the green from the rough, so would have needed to chip in for a birdie). She still had to get down in two from a 5-iron approach and then play a good round in the playoff.
For Inkster, the blow may have been softened by her victories in the 1999 and 2002 Women’s Opens. Sheehan, for her part, also added a Women’s Open in 1994.
We can only hope that the 2010 Women’s Open comes down to a similar battle of titans—without the controversy at the end.