Sometimes things happen in sport that are too surreal even to consider for a work of fiction.

Sometimes things happen in sport that are too surreal even to consider for a work of fiction.

Just after 6.30pm last Sunday evening, Jeff Hall (Managing Director, Rules & Competitions, USGA) appeared live on Fox Sports 1 to explain the decision the US Golf Association was making in respect of Dustin Johnson’s magical moving ball.

Jeff Hall had come directly from the 12th tee to the TV studio. At that tee-box, he had told Dustin Johnson (whose ball moved on the fifth green when Johnson’s putter was ‘in the area’) that the USGA had considered whether Johnson should be penalised a shot.

The consideration ended in the decision that they would only decide once Johnson’s round was ended.

The reaction in the TV studio was bewilderment. And a little anger.

The basis of all competitive sport is knowing what the score is. And now nobody knew the score — what a farce.

How could you create doubt like that at a time like that, not just for Johnson but for the men playing against him?

How can you compete when you don’t know what you’re competing against?

Within 20 minutes, Fox Sports were reading out tweets by Jordan Speith and Rickie Fowler and Rory McIlroy.

They all slaughtered the USGA for what they had done.

McIlroy’s pithy conclusion was that it was ‘amateur hour.’ And he was right — it was exactly the kind of thing that used to happen in the GAA about 130 years ago.

Take, for example, what happened when the first ever Limerick County Hurling Final was played on Sunday, 17 July 1887 — the game ended in scenes of pure mayhem.

The match between South Liberties and Murroe should have lasted one hour, but lasted almost three, primarily because the players were “grossly offensive to one another”.

After two minutes, a Murroe man had to leave the field with a bad head wound and thereafter there were frequent scuffles.

The South Liberties captain later complained that the Murroe men had been shouting ‘break their hurleys!’ and ‘cut the legs of them!’, and that five of their players had been severely injured in the game with several still receiving medical treatment a week later.

Fighting extended even to the crowd, who were considered most partisan in favour of the South Liberties team.

The reporter for the Munster News considered it likely that country teams would refrain from coming into the city of Limerick if such a hostile atmosphere was to become typical. Now, none of this has anything to do with what happened in America at the US Open — the appalling visit of men attempting to strangle each other with golf sweaters or slapping each other with their caps was left unrealised.

The parallels with Limerick lie, instead, in how rules are administered in the heat of battle.

When the full-time whistle blew in Limerick in July 1887, both the Murroe and South Liberties teams claimed victory.

To underline the point, they each chaired their respective captains off the field amid celebratory cheers.

And at that stage both teams did have legitimate claims for victory.

In the second half of the final, a big tussle near the South Liberties goalposts had seen timber and men flying in every direction.

In the midst of the carnage, a goal was claimed by Murroe but rejected by South Liberties.

The referee was unsure and decided to defer his decision.

Under the system that had been developed by the GAA for its first championship matches, the referee had only to give his decision later in the evening— and not on the field of play.

This had the disadvantage of leaving players and spectators in ignorance of a result in occasional matches as they left the ground.

Against that, it did hold the benefit of allowing the referee to enjoy safe passage from the field and make good his exit.

Perhaps the referee on this occasion — P. O’Brien, who was also the County Committee chairman — was hoping that the gap between the teams when the game ended would be so great as to render the goal irrelevant to the final score.

Unfortunately for the referee, on this occasion, if he awarded the goal, Murroe would be champions and if he disallowed it, the South Liberties men would take the honours.

After the final whistle, O’Brien told all present that he would announce his decision later in the evening — and he headed away from the Markets’ Field where the match had been played in front of a huge crowd.

When the decision finally came late in the evening, it was to award the goal — and Murroe were proclaimed the first champions of Limerick.

Unsurprisingly, that was not that. Indeed, the ruling started a dispute in Limerick that was brutal and rumbled on for years.

Indeed, it ended up with Limerick having what was described as ‘the luxury’ of having two County Committees attempting to run GAA affairs in the county.

Attempts by the Central Executive of the GAA to resolve the dispute came to nothing — both County Committees in Limerick took to running their own particular county championship the following year.

Both the Tipperary and Cork county hurling championship that same year were derailed in similar disputes over refereeing decisions — it meant the All-Ireland championship was only finally finished a year late.

The thing is that common sense quickly prevailed in the GAA and the ‘deferred announcement’ approach to refereeing decisions was abandoned after that first year of championship hurling.

It came as something of a surprise, then, to see the USGA choose to integrate the GAA’s old system into their decision-making in the US Open.

It’s an awful pity they were spared the utter humiliation of their decision actually mattering in the finish.

Either way, though, the preening, unbearable pomposity and self-regard of the men who sit at the apex of golf was revealed in vivid colour.

And when it comes down to it, the simple truth is that when they were most needed, they weren’t up to the job.

Again.


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