A Hard Golf Lesson for Dustin Johnson

published August 16, 2010

The Rules of Golf seem harsh, but they are merely clear.

Dustin Johnson may feel he was a victim of the rules, but in fact he violated them, however trivially.

Johnson played his second shot on the final hole from a terrace of sand deep in the gallery far right of the 18th fairway.  Three shots later, he finished his round at eleven under par, in a three-way tie for the lead.

As Johnson went to sign his scorecard in preparation for the three-hole playoff, rules official David Price, who had walked the round with Johnson’s group, approached him to say he may have grounded his club in a bunker before playing from the sand.  The penalty for touching the ground with your club in a hazard – a sand bunker is a hazard – is two strokes.

“It never once crossed my mind that I was in a sand trap,” Johnson said later.

After reviewing the video evidence, Johnson acknowledged his club had touched the sand before his shot, erased the 5 from the little box under 18 on the scorecard, and wrote in a 7.  Instead of joining the playoff, he headed to the showers.

Golf’s rules don’t allow for shades of gray; they’re a black and white world, and they have to be.

Golf is played under an incredible variety of conditions, from the lush green hills of Augusta National to the treeless and windblown linksland of St. Andrews, through desert, woodland, heath, lava fields, quarries, mountains, rivers and ponds.  No master lawmaker can anticipate every possible situation faced by every wayward golfer.  To provide guidance, the rules must be clear, firm, and apply to everyone in similar circumstances.

Whistling Straits is an artificial dunesland created on what was originally a flat piece of land.  It has at least 1200 bunkers – no one has ever made an accurate count – many of which are in silly positions high up in the dunes, likely never to come into play.  “This is such a very unique and beautiful golf course,” said Mark Wilson, co-chairman of the PGA of America rules committee, “[and] we made it the number-one item on our Local Rules sheet simply to explain that all of the bunkers that were designed and built as sand bunkers on this golf course would be played that way.”

All players were explicitly warned that some of the bunkers behind the gallery ropes would be walked in, driven through, and otherwise in a condition very different from the raked sand they’re used to, but they would still be treated as bunkers and all the rules governing bunkers would be in effect.  This particular point was not only at the top of the Local Rules sheet, but was posted on the mirrors in the locker room.

“The dilemma,” Wilson explained, “is that it’s even harder to say some of these are not bunkers and some of them are, because then how do you define those?  And then a player would essentially be treading on thin ice almost every time he entered a sandy area wondering where he was.  And with 1200 of them, there’s no way to confirm with each player exactly where he lays.”

Dustin Johnson may have gained no advantage from grounding his club, but that makes no difference.  When Ian Woosnam’s caddie neglected to remove a second driver from his bag in the final round of the 2001 British Open, it didn’t matter that Woosnam hadn’t used the offending club when he noticed it on the second tee; he had fifteen, the rules allow fourteen, and the two-shot penalty knocked him out of the tournament lead.

The Johnson snafu overshadowed a strange and dramatic final round, as well as the three-hole playoff between long-hitting Bubba Watson and German-born Scottsdale resident Martin Kaymer.  Kaymer, 25, has five previous victories on the European Tour, and joins Graeme McDowell and Louis Oosthuizen as 2010 major champions with roots in that circuit.  McDowell and Kaymer will be on the European Ryder Cup team in October; so will Rory McIlroy, the 21-year-old who finished third, as he had last month at the British Open.

Even before the final drama, the day had to have eerie echoes for Johnson, who had a three-shot lead after three rounds at the U.S. Open in June but lost it all fast, going six over par in the first four holes en route to an 82.  On Sunday, he trailed leader Nick Watney by three strokes, and drew even on the first hole when he made birdie and Watney double-bogeyed.  Watney was on his way to a front-nine 43 and an 18th place finish; Johnson was heading for three birdies in five holes on the back nine, and a one-stroke lead as he stood on the final tee.

The events on that last hole will probably be remembered longer than the playoff that followed.

“Maybe I should have looked at the rule sheet a little harder,” Johnson said.

And maybe he shouldn’t have hit his tee shot so wildly into the gallery in the first place.

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