Dustin Johnson’s Mistake or Was He Set Up?

A 2-stroke penalty on the final hole was all that fell between Dustin Johnson and a chance to win the 2010 PGA Championship.  I think the conditions that led to that penalty and its effect was terrible, avoidable, and could have been tragic for his career.  But for his demeanor and mature acceptance of the situation, the outcome of the PGA Championship tournament at Whistling Straits could haunt him forever.  I don’t think it will, but he certainly lost an opportunity to compete in the playoff for the Major victory.

Was it his fault?  Here he is on the final round playing the final hole with a chance to win or tie the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits.  From the tee he drives his ball to the right into a crowd of spectators behind the ropes.  The crowd parts only as much as is necessary to allow him a small buffer around the ball.  He does not identify that his ball is actually in a bunker.  Neither does his caddy, not anyone else.  He grounds his club, strikes the ball, finishes the hole with what he thinks is a bogey.  Then he is approached by a PGA official on the 18th green as he is departing and receives the news that he is to receive a 2-stroke penalty for grounding his club in what turned out to be a bunker.  He is no longer in the playoff.  He is shocked and surprised…as were the commentators both in the booth and on the course. 

How could he have been in a bunker and fail to recognize it?  Even David Feherty, on the ground with him, didn’t see it.  Two things occurred (or did not occur) to set the conditions for this to happen.  Firstly, PGA officials established the rule before the tournament that all bunkers on the course would be played as a hazard whether trampled by the gallery behind the ropes or inside the ropes and groomed.  This ruling was communicated on the rule sheet and published in the locker room for all of the players.    The reason for this ruling was that because there are so many bunkers on the course – 1800+ – it would be impossible to characterize individual bunkers as “hazards in play” or not.  That is crap.  I saw red lines everywhere on that course, even through the television screen, identifying the distinction between hazard and non-hazard.  If you run out of paint, use the ropes.  Yes, all 1800+ bunkers were intended to be a part of the course of play, but, did Pete Dye really envision thousands of gallery members trampling in them effectively making some of them indistinguishable from the other parts of the surrounding area?  I doubt it. 

Secondly, each group had a PGA official with them.  There was an official with Dustin’s group.  Why didn’t he step in to adjudicate?  Surely, since the PGA officials were sensitive to play from bunkers behind the ropes and the effect trampling galleries might have on them (mentioned in the rule sheet), wouldn’t or shouldn’t they have been ultra sensitive to the possibility of a “Dustin Johnson event” occurring?  The official asked Dustin if he was good.  Dustin said he was.  Then he grounded his club.  He didn’t know he was in a bunker!  Catch 22! 

Some discussion and speculation came out as to whether Dustin read the rule sheet.  Even Dustin commented that he should have read it, but I think that comment was his sarcastic retort to a question put to him.  I watched it and that was my sensing.  However, whether he read it or not, if he didn’t know he was in a bunker because it did not look like a bunker, the issue is moot.  He had no reason to refer to the rule.

Two things caused this.  The PGA ruling should have been that all bunkers outside of the ropes be treated as waste areas – allowing for more ‘lenient play’ – because of the effect the galleries had on them.  To help adjudicate that, they had available a PGA official with every group to make the call where there might be a question.  But, even in the event they went with the ruling as they did, they should have instructed the walking officials to be sensitive to positive identification of the bunkers behind the ropes. 

This was an avoidable situation brought on by some bad decisions.  That’s how I see it.

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