Blog 46 - Dustin Johnson and the Rules Nightmare at Whistling Straits

Johnson; bad error or victim of a silly rule?

It's a sad phenomenon when major championships - any sporting occasion for that matter - are remembered not for who won them but for some unfortunate incident that befell the closest pursuers. The 1968 Masters will forever be remembered as the one that Roberto De Vicenzo lost because he signed for an incorrect score (the 66 he signed for had to stand, rather than the 65 he actually shot, so he missed a playoff by a stroke) rather than Bob Goalby winning. Paul Lawrie claiming the Claret Jug at the 1999 Open Championship at Carnoustie probably received a quarter of the air time and black ink that Jean Van de Velde's blowup on the last hole of regulation play did. And though they'll take a very different view of it in Korea, last year's PGA Championship at Hazeltine National was the first major that Tiger Woods let get away, not a superb and historically-significant performance by YE Yang, Asia's first ever major champion.
So it will be with this year's PGA Championship. Partly because the winner is a quiet, methodical player who preferred to play the percentages rather than go for a crazy do-or-die shot, and partly because Dustin Johnson was robbed of a spot in the play-off following a controversial Rules decision, it's unlikely Martin Kaymer will receive the acclaim he is most certainly due.
Johnson had a one-shot lead coming to the 72nd hole but blocked his drive way right. The ball came to rest in an area of sand where the gallery had been walking all week - indeed, there were plenty of people still stood in the sand surrounding Johnson when he played his second shot. It didn't even occur to him that the ground he was standing on could be considered a bunker so, without hesitation, he grounded his club - unless you want a two-shot penalty, you mustn't ground your club prior to making a swing in a hazard, of course. After holing out for what he thought was a five, Johnson was informed Rules officials were deliberating over whether or not he should be penalized two shots.
Eventually, after what seemed like an unnecessarily long time, he was given the penalty. He changed his scorecard accordingly, signed for a 73 and dropped into a tie for fifth.  Four things struck me - one almost immediately, two a short while after that, and one just a few minutes ago;
1) If someone had the sense to caution Johnson not to sign his card until a decision had been made, couldn't that same person have cautioned him prior to addressing his ball...or perhaps the Rules official who was on the scene might have mentioned something (YouTube video posted by blogger Geoff Shackelford). The official was obviously aware of the situation, but didn't say anything to Johnson as he brushed past him. Perhaps that official wasn't in a position to say something (if that's the case, what was he doing there?) or simply assumed Johnson would know the ruling and therefore wouldn't ground his club.
2) While recognizing Whistling Straits is a special course (or is it?), aren't all those meaningless bunkers out in the middle of nowhere and which clearly don't come into play, totally absurd? Whistling Straits has ten times more bunkers than your typical British links course, and yet a great many of them have probably never seen any action. But they all cost money to build and maintain, costs that eventually get added to the green fee ($340). They look somehow appealing in photographs which helps with promoting the course, but they serve no other useful purpose and force tournament organizers (in this case the PGA of America) to instigate silly Local Rules. Dustin Johnson, like everyone else in the field, was made well aware of these Local Rules prior to and during the competition, and ultimately it was his fault for not remembering and abiding by the Rule pertaining to 'waste bunkers'. But it would not have been necessary in the first place were it not for an exposed patch of sand the PGA was compelled to designate a bunker.
3) Where was David Fay, or his equivalent, when we needed him? At the US Open, NBC invites David Fay, the Executive Director of the USGA which conducts the tournament, into the booth to comment on any issues relating to the Rules. It wasn't until long after the fact that CBS eventually got round to talking with Mark Brown. Yes, Brown was needed elsewhere as the incident played out, but surely someone else familiar with the situation could have been found.
4) What does this mean for the game? I watched the final round with a couple of people who know golf well enough to recognize that 11-under-par beats ten-under-par, 70 beats 71, and that a ball hit with a 4-iron should go further than one hit with a 7-iron. They are not good on the Rules, however, so couldn't understand what all the fuss was about. 'Why can't he put his club on the ground before he swings?' one asked. 'Because that would mean he was testing the surface of the sand, which effectively makes playing from the bunker easier and thus reduces the penalty for being in it in the first place,' I replied. 'Okay, but that's obviously not a bunker,' they countered. 'Erm, well usually it wouldn't be but apparently, on this occasion, it is,' I said, knowing full well what was going through their heads - 'What a dumb game this is.'
How many more potential golfers were watching and wondering how on Earth some of these Rules ever got dreamt up?

It was a regrettable way for what was an otherwise compelling tournament to end. The PGA Championship goes back to Whistling Straits in 2015 and the Ryder Cup will be played there five years after that. One hopes Pete Dye, Herb Kohler (Whistling Straits' owner), the PGA of America and CBS (probably NBC for the Ryder Cup) can all agree on measures to prevent something like this from happening again.
Let Johnson's folly/misfortune act as a reminder to always be aware of the Local Rules. I remember the first time I was told of the rule at Lake Padden that allows you to drop a ball on the edge of the tree-line under penalty of one stroke; a sensible rule that can take 10-15 minutes off a typical round and reduce the number of balls you lose. There's a lot to be said for that.

Add comment

Security code