It was sickening to watch and it didn’t seem fair.
But don’t blame the PGA of America and don’t blame golf’s rules.
This wasn’t Jim Joyce blowing the perfect game or Diego Maradona’s “Hand of God” goal being allowed to stand at the 1986 World Cup.
This wasn’t a blown judgment call. And it certainly wasn’t, as the shrieking heads of sports talk radio are already proclaiming, the worst call in the history of golf.
As tragic as his undoing was, the truth is that Dustin Johnson has only himself to blame.
Inattention to detail and not knowing the rules are what cost him a chance to win the 92nd PGA Championship after the craziest finish to a major since Roberto De Vicenzo inadvertently signed for a higher score at the 1968 Masters.
“What a stupid I am!” the Argentine famously said after missing out on a playoff 42 years ago at Augusta National.
Johnson’s language on Sunday was probably very different, but the sentiment would have been precisely the same.
The 26-year-old from South Carolina grounded his club in a trodden-down patch of sand on the 72nd hole at Whistling Straits. To a golfer, it wouldn’t have looked like a sand bunker, but the eccentric Herb Kohler had architect Pete Dye sprinkle a thousand of them, of all shapes and sizes, around Whistling Straits. And they’re all hazards, governed by the rules of golf.
Now, the case can be made that the PGA should’ve designated bunkers outside the gallery ropes — bunkers that fans step in — as waste bunkers, thereby allowing players to ground their clubs. But they didn’t.
That means that the club cannot come into contact with any sand at Whistling Straits until the shot is played. There are no gray areas. Johnson had no wiggle room. Ignorance of a rule isn’t a defense.
What made the whole episode more sickening was that, at the time, Johnson held a one-shot lead and was preparing to author one of the great redemption stories.
Just two months ago, at Pebble Beach, he had imploded after holding a three-shot lead going into the final round of the U.S. Open.
There were those who thought he might not recover from the emotional scars of that nightmarish 82. But he bounced back with a top-15 finish at St. Andrews, and after birdies at 16 and the diabolical par-3 17th on Sunday, it seemed that his first major was there for the taking.
As it was, he missed the green with his approach from the trap on the last hole and then pushed a 7-footer for par.
In the end, it was just as well that the putt didn’t fall.
“I guess the only worse thing that could’ve happened is if I’d made that putt,” he said.
Imagine the heartache if he’d celebrated, only to be told by rules officials that he was going to be assessed a two-shot penalty?
Johnson repeated after his round that he had no idea he‘d done anything wrong.
“It never once crossed my mind that I was in a sand trap,” he said. “I thought I was on a piece of dirt that the crowd had trampled down.”
Bubba Watson, who went on to lose a playoff with Germany’s Martin Kaymer — a playoff that Johnson would’ve been in had he not infringed the rules — said he knew of “at least one guy who read the rule.”
“Because I hit wild shots, so I’m used to going off track, so I need to know those rules,” the left-hander said.
And the PGA couldn’t have been clearer in spelling them out. Players were issued Supplementary Rules of Play when they registered for the tournament. The very first item addresses bunkers.
“All areas of the course that were designed and built as sand bunkers will be played as bunkers (hazards), whether or not they have been raked,” says the statement, which was posted in the locker rooms. “Such irregularities of surface are a part of the game and no free relief will be available from these conditions.”
To boot, Australian Stuart Appleby was assessed a four-shot penalty in the third round at the 2004 PGA here because he removed debris from a bunker that was outside the gallery ropes and also took a practice swing.
Appleby, who would’ve finished one shot out of a playoff that year, thought that because fans were “having a picnic” in the sand that it wasn’t to be treated as a bunker. He didn’t read the rules, either.
“It was my fault,” Appleby later said. “I should’ve read them and I didn’t.”
Six years later, Johnson sounded like he was reading from the same script.
“If it was up to me, I wouldn’t have thought I was in the bunker, but it’s not up to me, it’s up to the Rules Committee, so I got to deal with it,” he said. “Maybe I should have looked to the rule sheet a little harder. I only look at it if I have a reason to, and I didn’t see I had a reason to.”
And with that he left, heartbroken for the second time this year. Did he feel like something was stolen?
“Maybe a little bit,” he said. “But, you know, that’s how it goes.”