I think we’ve all agreed that Dustin Johnson should take the most blame for his mistake, but this whole situation just hasn’t sat well with me. As a former competitive golfer, I’ve been playing the above YouTube video (via Geoff Shackelford) repeatedly and wondering what I would have done. Did I read the local rules? Well, the officials usually shoved them down our throats, so I’d at least skim them. But it was usually stuff about the flower beds, etc, and I’d keep a copy in my bag to refer to if needed (which wasn’t often). When it comes to waste bunkers, I would definitely double-check and sometimes ask my playing partners or a rules official for clarification.
Would I have grounded my club in DJ’s situation? I don’t know. I’ve never been on the 72nd hole at a major championship with the lead. But I will say that I probably wouldn’t have bothered calling a rules official if I didn’t think it looked like a bunker. Okay, it kind of looked like sand, but there were also patches of grass mixed in the sand. That’s the main issue here — if a player can’t tell he’s in a bunker, then something’s very, very wrong.
Unfortunately, it was like a perfect storm of everything that could have gone wrong in the situation.
Here’s a breakdown of other parties that deserve some of the blame for Bunker-Gate.
*THE RULES OF GOLF
It was really fun trying to explain to your friends, who are sports fans but not golfers, why DJ lost his shot at winning because he did something called “grounding his club” in a “bunker.” What does “grounding the club” mean, anyway? I gave them the simplest explanation: If your ball is in a bunker or any hazard, your club can’t touch the ground until after you have hit the ball.
Well, that’s stupid! What’s the reason for this rule? Technically, it’s to prevent players from “testing the surface.” Which sounds even more stupid because how does “testing the surface” give you a competitive advantage. Well, if we’re going to get all technical…don’t worry, I’ll spare you and myself. But why are you allowed to set your golf bag down in a hazard without penalty?
How strange that the results of one of the sport’s biggest events were impacted because of a rule that gave him no competitive advantage, my friends mused. Another big win for golf! My friends, who think this “sport” is even stupider now, weren’t convinced at my attempt to justify the ruling — and neither was I, frankly. Another point that purists will dispute — the question of intent and Johnson didn’t intentionally violate the spirit of the game.
*DJ’S CADDIE, BOBBY BROWN
Now, what was Johnson’s caddie doing during all of this? It’s the caddie’s job to recognize the situation and make sure his player is aware. Brown plunked the bag down in the bunker — which isn’t a breach of the rules — but when do you ever see caddies put golf bags in them? Never. But it was so crowded that he had no choice and he didn’t realize it was a bunker either.
After what happened at Pebble Beach when Brown didn’t run interference on the disastrous second hole in the final round, it seems reasonable for him to be more cautious and make sure DJ didn’t rush the shot.
“I’ve thought long and hard, and I’ll have to take a little heat” for the mistake, he said. “Maybe I should’ve known. I always read those sheets; I carry them in my yardage book in case there’s a question.
“(But) I’ve walked by bunkers every day, and I never thought that was a bunker. I thought it was a waste area. It looked like sand off the hill.”
Brown said that in five years as a PGA Tour caddie, he never had encountered such a situation. “Nothing, never, not even close,” he said.
The marshals are in charge of crowd control. It’s their responsibility to help make sure the spectators clear the way and stay far enough back. But with no walkways on the course, the marshals say, “Quiet, please,” and hold up their arms before a player teed off or putted, etc. Other than that — from what I saw — it didn’t seem like they did much to enforce order. I mean, in the playoff, Martin Kaymer was hushing the crowd when Bubba was about to hit from the hazard.
On Sunday as I walked up with McIlroy and Liang, I noticed a bunch of fans were like 15 yards inside the ropes and scattered — the media isn’t even supposed to be there. Now honestly, I could care less, but if we’re going to get technical…and this is just another example of the lack of order at Whistling Straits. I know the people in Wisconsin are usually pleasant and agreeable, but there’s gotta be some enforcement, right? (God, I can’t believe I actually just wrote that.)
Is there an argument to be made that if they had cleared people out more, then it would have been obvious Johnson was in a bunker? I’m told from someone in the gallery that it was so chaotic and there were so many people that they did a good job all things considered.
*THE WALKING OFFICIAL, DAVID PRICE
Don’t blame the marshals, though — what about the team of rules officials that are usually with the last group in the final round? There were only five walking rules officials total, one with each of the last five groups. Why didn’t David Price, the one assigned to DJ and Watney, remind Johnson that he was in a bunker even if it didn’t look like one?
“There walking official is designed to help the player and to answer a player’s question, but the walking official in stroke play is not there to strategize every player’s stroke or hover over a player who is making a stroke,” said Mark Wilson, co-chairman of the PGA of America rules committee. “These are experience Tour players who by and large know the rules.”
Sure, under normal circumstances they’re familiar with the rules, but at a contrived faux-Irish links course that boasts around 1,000 bunkers for decoration, it seems reasonable to give a guy leading a major a little wink on the 72nd hole. But the walking official is allowed to intervene and “offer advice to prevent a breach of the rules.” Well, shouldn’t he have been by Johnson, then?
“[Price] certainly would have jumped in,” Wilson said. “Under the circumstances, with that many people over there, it was hard. Obviously, for the player himself to get there, let alone for the walking official..if it’s that hard to get the player over there, all the rules official is going to be doing is hovering over the player and they’re really not trying to encourage that.”
It was too crowded for the walking official to hike the hill because the PGA of America doesn’t want players to think he is going “to scrutinize every rule”? Under the circumstances with the unique nature of Whistling Straits on the last hole at a major championship, it would have been logical to have Wilson hover. In fact, DJ probably would have welcomed the scrutiny — not that much hampers Johnson’s easygoing nature.
But on Monday, Price said he did offer Johnson help. Via ESPN:
Price said he went up to Johnson as he was preparing to hit his second shot and asked him if he needed anything. Johnson replied that he needed the crowd moved to the right, so Price went to make sure that was being done and then waited on the fairway. He never saw Johnson ground his club.
“All he had to do was ask,” Price said. “He’d asked me before that. He’d been in a bunch of bunkers. You don’t remind a player on every hole that you can’t ground your club.”
Anyone see Price near Johnson in CBS’s telecast? I guess that part was cut out.
THE PGA OF AMERICA
When have you ever heard of spectators trampling in bunkers and so many horded in one, that it’s virtually hidden. While he shouldn’t have hit such a bad drive, fans shouldn’t be free to march through bunkers at a major.
But if they are, then they’re called waste bunkers. It’s a problem when a player can’t discern whether he’s in a bunker — it means the PGA isn’t defining the golf course well enough. If Stuart Appleby, a veteran, made the same mistake in 2004, why didn’t they figure out a better solution to deal with the “unique” conditions of Whistling Straits? They had six years to make adjustments..
PETE DYE/HERB KOHLER/WHISTLING STRAITS
The damn pointless bunkers. I guess they did make the effort to get rid of some — there were 1,400 in 2004 and 967 in 2010. Regardless, I think I made it pretty clear how I feel about the bunkers in this post.
It’s a travesty when the big story coming out of a major is about a ruling controversy rather than the fine play of a gracious and very talented champion, Martin Kaymer. Instead, it’s makes golf look stupid.