DE-RAKE GATE: DJ’s bunker controversy five years later
By Stephanie Wei under PGA Championship

Rewind to five years ago when the PGA Championship was last held at Whistling Straits. What do you remember more clearly? Martin Kaymer hoisting the Wanamaker Trophy after beating Bubba Watson in a four-hole playoff? Or Dustin Johnson pushing his drive way right on the 72nd hole and his ball ending up in a sandy area — which had been trampled by thousands of fans and even splattered with trash — where he grounded his club and received a two-shot penalty that took him out of the playoff? Probably the latter, unfortunately.

The 2010 PGA Championship essentially ended in controversy, confusion and dismay — it was one of those majors where it will always be more memorable for how it was lost, rather than how it was won.

“I need to say it’s a little sad that every time we talk about the PGA Championship here, it’s like that Dustin threw it away,” said Kaymer on Wednesday morning. “Of course, if you would have made the putts on 18 and if he would have not gotten the penalty stroke, he would have won the tournament.

“The penalty stroke was very unlucky. The putt, it was just a regular putt that he missed. Obviously, he would have been in the playoff. And it’s always a little bit that everybody still thinks that he would have won the tournament outright. So, yeah, it’s obviously — it was very unfortunate for him, but on the other hand, knowing what kind of player he is, he will be in that position again.”

There were nearly 1,000 bunkers that covered Whistling Straits in 2010 — the majority of which were garnish for the picturesque faux-links style course (which, to be clear, plays nothing like real links) inspired by the tracks spanning the Irish coastlines. It was owner Herb Kohler’s vision, which he worked on with architect Pete Dye to come into fruition. Most of the hundreds of bunkers don’t come into play and they’re spread throughout the property, which meant the sandy areas intruded into spectator areas that were trampled over by thousands throughout the week — including the one where DJ grounded his club.

In 2010 the PGA of America posted signs around the locker room that spelled out the local rule clearly: “All areas of the course that were designed and built as bunkers, filled with sand, will be played as bunkers (hazards), whether or not they have been raked.”

Well, every week on the PGA Tour, there are similar notices detailing the local rules of the venue, but they largely go ignored by the players, who have competed in hundreds of tournaments. The pros usually rely on their caddies or the rules officials to clarify and let them know the specific stipulations or if there’s anything unique to look after.

A similar bulletin has been posted this week in just about every possible space — even above the urinals — in the locker room. Johnson hasn’t bothered to stop and read any of them, though.

“After what happened, I’m pretty sure I know what’s going on,” he said.

Following Johnson’s unfortunate gaffe, he said he never thought it was a bunker. If you watch the footage or visited the site of the incident — which is now “coincidentally” covered mostly by corporate hospitality tents — you would most likely understand the confusion.

“I just thought I was on a piece of dirt that the crowd had trampled down,” Johnson said in 2010. “I never thought I was in a sand trap. It never once crossed my mind that I was in a bunker. Obviously I know the Rules of Golf, and I can’t ground my club in a bunker, but that was just one situation I guess. Maybe I should have looked to the rule sheet a little harder…

“I don’t know if I can describe it. You know, walking up there, seeing the shot, it never once crossed my mind that I was in a sand trap. I guess it’s very unfortunate.  I guess the only worse thing that could have happened is if I made that [par] putt on the last hole. I never once thought that I was in a sand trap.”

You can’t blame him completely, but there’s plenty of it to be spread around, as I wrote five years ago (which is worth the read, if I don’t say so myself). Some scapegoated his caddie Bobby Brown, who declined to comment on the incident. Others pointed fingers at the walking rules official David Price, who failed to clear out the crowd and stood in the fairway as Johnson tried to navigate his way and hit his shot in what appeared to be a stampeded pile of dirt. We could debate this all day long, but one thing’s for sure: It was truly a shame.

I mean, I vividly remember the heartbreaking scene of him in the scoring tent and erasing the “5” he had written on his card and changing it to a “7.” I got goosebumps — and not the good kind — just thinking about it as I typed that sentence.

I took a gander at the so-called scene of the crime on Tuesday afternoon:

Since 2010, the bunkers in that area have had contour added to them to avoid the gaffe, and of course, there are now tents covering most of the area. Johnson found out about it last week at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational after talking with Graeme McDowell, who had been out to Whistling Straits early to get in some practice prior to the championship week.

“This year I don’t have to worry about it — there’s a grand stand there,” quipped Johnson on Wednesday afternoon. “Thank you, PGA. I appreciate that.”

Johnson, who now has quite the history of botching four or five majors, has always let things slide off his back pretty easily. Earlier in 2010, he had a four-shot lead heading into the final round of the U.S. Open, but blew it early with some silly mistakes. In 2011 he held the lead with five holes to play before pushing one out-of-bounds on no. 14 at the Open Championship. Then, of course, there was that three-putt from 12-feet on the 72nd hole of the U.S. Open a few months ago that cost him from either winning outright or getting into an 18-hole playoff against Jordan Spieth.

Luckily, Johnson doesn’t dwell for long on the negatives.

“About as many times as I’ve been asked the question,” said Johnson when asked how often he’s thought about the bunker fiasco in 2010. “I mean, so, I don’t know how many times that is. But I don’t really think about it unless someone asks me the question.”

However, the unfortunate bunker-not-a-bunker incident was shocking and no one would blame DJ if he was a little bitter over a foolish debacle that could have cost him his first major championship, which he’s still searching for five years later.

“I don’t really get too angry about (the disappointments at majors), but yeah, definitely motivation for sure,” he said. “It’s frustrating sometimes, but not, I try not to let it bother me. I love the game, and at the end of the day, it is just a game. And we’re out here playing for all of you and all the fans and so to get upset and get too worked up about it, I think it’s not worth it.

“So I try to learn from all the things that’s happened and move forward and help me the next time I’m in the situation to overcome it and get a major championship.”

Perhaps this will be his week, but for now, he’s just keeping it real.

“I’m just chilling,” said Johnson. “Trying to get focused for tomorrow. I always get nervous on the first tee at every event. But as far as right now, no, I’m feeling good. Ready to get going, but no really emotions right now.”

Ah, the life and mind of DJ.


Recommended reading from 2010: 

*Bunker-gate: A report from inside the bunker

*Dustin’s bunker blunder was a group effort

*Dustin Johnson goes to his room, grounded

*The day after: Dustin Johnson talks about bunker-gate, says already over it