Golf is, by its very nature, a game that depends heavily upon rules. While PGA Tour professionals are closely scrutinized by fans, analysts, and television camera crews, the average links enthusiast is not bound by anything more than the honor system. For that reason, the game has evolved with a regulation for every situation. Every shot, every lie, every moment is governed by strict requirements designed to ensure that all who golf play the same game.
And so when the PGA Rules Committee decided that Dustin Johnson grounded his club when he took his second shot on the 18th hole in Sunday’s final round of the PGA Championship, officials were merely upholding the integrity of the game.
Perhaps it’s not that simple. For those who didn’t see the event, Johnson was one of a handful of golfers who were in and around the lead on Sunday. Of these few players who were legitimately in contention as they closed in on their respective 72-hole totals, Bubba Watson was the first to finish. He posted an 11-under score and sat as the leader in the clubhouse; his primary competition still on the course was the duo of Martin Kaymer and Johnson himself.
Kaymer was playing in the second to last group, Johnson in the final pairing. Kaymer, a native of Germany, made a tremendous up-and-down on 18 to preserve par and hold onto his own 11-under, putting him in a tie with Watson. But Johnson was tearing up the back nine, having birdied 3 of 5 holes as he came in.
In fact, he made a pressure-packed birdie putt on the 17th to put himself in sole possession of the lead at 12-under. All Dustin Johnson had to do to have his name engraved on the Wanamaker Trophy was par the 18th hole.
To add even more drama to the moment was the fact that Johnson nearly won the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach before a final-round 82 destroyed his chances. After that crushing disappointment, it was unclear how the 26 year old would react in the PGA Championship, the season’s fourth and final major tournament.
To his credit, Johnson acquitted himself quite well, and the Wanamaker was his to lose. Unfortunately, he yanked his tee shot on the 18th, slicing it deep into the gallery. His second shot landed in the rough, leaving him with a half-buried ball and a difficult chip shot.
Amazingly, Johnson popped the ball onto the green and within about 8 feet of the cup…only to miss the par putt by inches. The disheartening bogey wasn’t the end of the world, however– Johnson was still in a 3-way playoff with Kaymer and Watson.
Except, he wasn’t.
As Johnson left the green and headed to sign his scorecard, he was informed by PGA official David Price that his second shot was in fact taken from a bunker. Prior to striking the ball, Johnson had grounded his club. By rule, the move necessitated a 2-stroke penalty.
After about 20 minutes of deliberation, Price and Mark Wilson of the PGA Rules Committee determined that Johnson should be penalized. The decision took him from 11-under and tied for the lead to 9-under– good for fifth place.
The letter of the law was unmistakable. Johnson was in a bunker and did ground his club. The PGA was within its rights to make the call. But the situation wasn’t so black and white.
Johnson was shooting from the middle of the gallery. He was, quite literally, surrounded on all sides by fans who had for fours days been trampling every square inch of the area where his tee shot landed. In no way did the ground resemble a bunker: there was no discernible border, no clean sand, no raised edge. Johnson’s ball was resting on grass, twigs, and straw, none of which would normally be found in a sand trap.
As Johnson later said, it never crossed his mind that he might be in a trap. Nor should it have. The parking lot would have looked more like a bunker than that bunker.
Clearly, this was Johnson’s only defense. He did indeed ground the club and never tried to claim otherwise. At the outset of the tournament, the PGA sat down with the players and reviewed the tournament rules sheet, at the top of which was the most important bit of information about the Whistling Straits golf course.
With more than 1,200 bunkers, the course is built on a foundation of sand. The PGA went to great lengths to make sure that the players understood that some of these bunkers would fall “outside of the ropes”, and that regardless of their locations relative to the holes, anything designed to be a bunker would be treated as a bunker.
Knowing that would seem to nullify Johnson’s excuse. But in my opinion, the PGA ignored the spirit of the rule when enforcing the penalty.
Yes, he grounded his club. But he did not do so directly behind the ball. He gained no advantage in his lie by doing so. Moreover, it was unreasonable to expect Johnson to recognize the area as a bunker. As the CBS news crew took great pains to point out, there was nothing at all recognizable to notice. By all appearances, the ball was merely resting on the area’s natural soil.
Because he acted in good faith, gained no advantage, and could not have reasonably been expected to identify the trap in question, the PGA might have taken a closer look at Johnson’s unique situation. Officials have the power to overrule a penalty if extenuating circumstances have occurred. In this case, I believe they did. Johnson would have had to have been playing with an overabundance of caution to call for an interpretation prior to his shot. In fact, I think only an extremely paranoid golfer would have even considered the possibility that the turf was part of a sand trap.[pullquote]Had the PGA upheld the spirit of the grounding rule, the outcome of the championship might have been very different.[/pullquote]
Although the rules were clearly stated and agreed upon prior to play, the PGA and the course managers have an obligation to keep the grounds playable and identifiable. It wasn’t Johnson who permitted the galleries to abuse the area, and it wasn’t Johnson who failed to keep the “bunker” clear of debris that has no place in sand traps. Even though the players were warned that bunkers outside the ropes might contain, for example, “footprints” or “tire tracks”, it’s unreasonable to expect anyone– no matter how seasoned– to see what’s not there.
Imagine for a moment a fairway that is left untended until it dies and blends in seamlessly with surrounding cartpaths or hazards. At the professional level, is it still fair to call it a fairway?
To be clear, this wasn’t a bad call on the PGA’s part. Its officials simply applied a rule and, by the strictest of definitions, did so properly. But the circumstances surrounding the shot weren’t given their due. Johnson paid for what I consider the mistakes made by the grounds crew. Had the PGA upheld the spirit of the grounding rule, the outcome of the championship might have been very different. Though Kaymer went on to earn a much-deserved win, Johnson should have been part of the playoff.